Joy of Sets: ER (Season 1) “When did it start raining?”

It’s a strange thing to be rewatching Season 1 of ER seventeen years after seeing the show for the first time. So much of what was new and thrilling back in 1994 has now become standard TV drama practice, but at the same time the love I have for these characters and the fact that most of the drama was so bloody brilliant, means it does stand the test of time.

Take the first three and a half minutes. It’s 5am and Dr Mark Greene is asleep in the on-call room. Lydia (a nurse) wakes him for a patient who can’t be seen by the intern – it’s Dr Ross. Doug Ross (paedatrician, maverick, terrible boyfriend) is verrrry drunk and in need of IV hydration and aspirin. Mark treats him and tries to get some more sleep – only to be woken (what seems like immediately) by Lydia needing approval to give more demarol to a patient in pain and then again (another second later) to be told it’s time to get up.  

The 300 (or so) seconds that this scene takes not only establish Dr Greene as a put-upon good guy with marital difficulties, Dr Ross as a charismatic and problematic friend and womaniser and Lydia as a tireless, seen-it-all, getting-on-with-it nurse, they also introduce us to the chaotic physical nature of Cook County’s emergency room. Floors are being mopped, a man is standing on step-ladder changing a strip light, staff are weaving around moving stuff, patients are being wheeled on trollies and big-hearted big guy Gerry is on reception. The only thing we’re not prepared for is the rollercoaster of emotions and action that will carry us through the next few years.

Of course it’s not long before the drums are pounding, the trauma rooms are heaving and bloody,  your heart rate is accelerating and your brain is reeling under a barrage of U’s and E’s, CBCs, chem 7s, crits, typing and cross-matching, NG tubes, wide-bore IVs – all of them ‘stat’.

And accompanying us is the viewer’s surrogate, John Carter – third year medical student (incapable of inserting an IV or putting in stitches when we first meet him). Carter not only gets to help deliver a baby on his first day, he gets to utter the first of an oft-used comment: “When did it start snowing?” (see also “When did it stop raining?” etc).

There’s also plenty of social commentary on poverty, race, drugs and guns. From the old black guy that probably doesn’t need a neurological consult at $200, and accuses Dr Greene of racism when Mark tries to spare him the unnecessary expense, to the 13-year-old crack dealer shot five times with an Uzi – it made Casualty look like Acorn Antiques.

It’s a mark of just how good the writing is that when Carol takes an overdose at the end of the pilot episode, having had no more than a few minutes’ screen time, you desperately want her to pull through. (A feeling only amplified by that poignant piano riff that reminds me of Later Tonight by Pet Shop Boys.)

And that’s just the pilot episode. We haven’t touched on the brilliant William H Macy as Morgenstern (“The unit’s looking to you Mark, you set the tone”), Doug and Carol’s difficult relationship, the seat-of-the-pants surgeries, the vomiting German tourists, Susan Lewis and her troubled relationships with her superior Dr Kayson, her boyfriend Dr Cvetic and her sister Chloe, the family of nurses (Haleh through to Malik), the Top Gun alumni (Anthony Edwards was, of course, Goose, but Jester (Michael Ironside) and Slider (Rick Rossovich) also share screen time), Rosemary Clooney singing in the corridors, Doug buying medication for an impoverished family’s asthmatic child, those rooftop dashes to meet the helicopters, Benton’s affair with Jeannie, Hathaway’s wedding day and the traumatic, award-winning episode Love”s Labor Lost.

If the last few years of ER turned you off (and I do see how they might have), you really should go back to the start and see just how damn good it was before the days of helicopters falling into the ambulance bay. This was landmark TV and it deserves to be watched again. As for me, I’m sending orders for Season Two to Amazon. Stat.

Posted by Jo the Hat

ER boxed sets from Amazon

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Filed under Drama, Joy of Sets

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