The effects of the writer's strike in Hollywood this past year is still being felt in our television sets. As the 2007-2008 seasons of our favorite shows come to DVD, for instance, regular collectors of TV on DVD are realizing that these new collections are much shorter than usual. This was a result of the months where work was halted and Hollwyood's slavish adherence to a school-year schedule. Even with this pause, the season had to end on time, even if contracts and commitments were for a certain number of episodes.
I think that latter cause is coming to bear on ER, the long-running medical drama that I have been a fan of since almost the beginning. I signed on as a regular viewer somewhere in the first or second season, thirteen years ago, 1995. That's quite a stretch, and up until two years ago, one that was usually rewarded. Somewhere in unlucky season 13, the series hit a lurch that it never found its way out of. Like that old car that takes longer to warm up in the mornings and starts to rattle and make noise like it's going to fall apart when you accelerate over a certain speed, ER wasn't performing the way it once was.
I use the car metaphor because speed is a big factor in why ER was beginning to suck. The pacing of the show had always matched the hyperdrive of the environment. Too many patients, not enough hours in the day, and precious few moments to get it right and save lives meant that the drama was always pushing forward, rushing to cram in as many plot points and character moments as possible before the clock ticked over into the next timeslot. As season 14 began in the autumn of 2007, ER's team had downshifted out of their usual frantic pace and now were taking their time, as if there weren't enough patients or even the will to work, let's all just kill time until our shift is over.
Surprisingly, the signal point for this doom was when Stanley Tucci joined the cast as the new chief in the emergency room. Say what you want about Tucci, but the actor, who has played everything from Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream to gangster Frank Nitti in Road to Perdition
and even the Tim Gunn-esque art director in The Devil Wears Prada, has never had a problem injecting life into a flagging production. He's like the caffeinated coffee you secretly sneak into the decaf pot when your unsuspecting coworkers require a little pep. Apparently, there was a double switch, like a spy comedy where we lose sight of which glass has the poison, and the whole crew was getting decaf. Gone was the adrenaline-fueled show style and the sense of urgency; here to stay was an increasingly lackadaisical sense of malaise.
Which is a tad off topic, going the long way around to say I had grown tired of ER, with its increasingly ridiculous big-event finales and the soap opera Achilles heel where many shows go on so long they have no more options for romantic couplings as everyone has slept with everyone else at one time or another. Had not rumors begun circulating at the outset of season 14 that it would be the show's last, I'd have jumped ship. After so long, though, it seemed silly to not see it through.
Then the writer's strike happened and those rumors dried up for a while, only to re-emerge to stay this season: #15, 2008-2009, would be the last one at long last, full of cameos and returning characters and farewells.
Only, three episodes into the new season, and it seems pretty clear to me that this year is going to be largely an add-on, an unplanned epilogue to the previously expected ending. Season 14 was nineteen episodes, four short of the usual twenty-three, so leftover four scripts waiting to be produced, perhaps? How else do we explain the killing of the Mekhi Phifer character in the season premiere and the departure of Maura Tierney in the third installment, which aired this past Thursday? Why would you dispense with the two actors with the most seniority in the cast so early on, unless maybe their contracts only covered a certain number of episodes, and that number logically would have fit with the full order of the previous season? Given the constantly renewable plot structure of the series--a teaching hospital such as Country General has a revolving door where staff comes and goes quite regularly--it makes a certain amount of sense that Phifer and Tierney might have left a few episodes before the end of the series, giving us a finale that showed an all-new staff completely unrecognizable to the team of doctors we met back in 1994--but a whole season's worth of John Stamos and Scott Grimes? Really?
This past week's farewell to Tierney's Abby Lockhart character was about as uninspired as they come. The basic idea was that Abby had not told anyone she was moving to Boston, and she shows up to her last day without any fanfare. Bookended by voiceover where the character waxes philosophical (was she reading from the Bible?) and featuring story lines that revolved around Abby saying good-bye to friends and passing an endless series of torches to those she was leaving behind featured echoes of many similar farewell episodes, but it felt far more forced this time around, largely due to the poor treatment of the character in the previous season.
Tierney joined the cast in 1999, and in the near decade that followed, her character has gone trough a lot, including wrestling with alcoholism and a history of mental illness in her family, various failed relationships, and a career path that took her from being a nurse to becoming a doctor. The apex of this character arc was her marriage to Luka Kovac (Goran Visnjic), presumably finding the stability she had always been searching for. Instead of making Abby the show's new uber-doctor (and its first woman in that role, really), however, the writers decided to spend another season kicking her around: she falls off the wagon, has an affair, and loses her confidence and very nearly her job. For the years we spent rooting for Abby to get ahead, this was a sad payoff. Even Tierney publicly expressed a desire to see her character killed rather than merely waving good-bye, saying it was the only thing they had not yet subjected Abby to. Extreme though it may be, it makes more sense than spending her last hour of television finally letting the character be everything you have spent the last year telling us she could not be.
And so, what does that leave us with? 19 episodes full of character we care little for? How long before more of them have contracts that run out? What will it matter if Noah Wyle or Anthony Edwards return to reprise their roles as doctors from the original staff if there is no one left at the hospital that actually worked with them? In strolls Dr. Carter, to a refrain of, "And you are...?"
As of right now, I'm strongly considering making this past week's episode my own personal finale. As the last character I have any investment in departs, so too shall I. Loyalty is a two-way street, and if the producers of ER have so little interest in rewarding mine, then why do they continue to deserve it? This is supposed to be entertainment, a part of the old "Must-See TV" line-up. Now tuning in every week is just a chore.
Watch the full episode of ER, "The Book of Abby."
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All text (c) 2008 Jamie S. Rich