10 episodes that will remind you why ER was the top drama of the ’90s
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With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
ER lasted so long (15 years) and killed its characters off in so many ridiculous ways that it’s hard to remember it was once the jewel in the crown of network drama. When it premièred in 1994, up against much-hyped fellow medical drama Chicago Hope, it became an instant sensation. Even in the pilot, the show had a blockbuster feel. It pulled off things people hadn’t seen before on TV, with long Steadicam shots that turned the show’s medical procedures into white-knuckle thrill-rides. The sight of that charismatic, pretty, but appropriately de-glammed cast shouting medical lingo while wheeling gunshot victims into grimy trauma rooms felt worlds away from any other hospital drama, even the great St. Elsewhere.
After reigning as arguably the most popular drama of the ’90s (finishing outside of the top two in the Nielsens only once in its first six seasons), ER’s decline was long and slow, with NBC finally pulling the plug at the end of the 15th season, which did its best to relive past glories by calling back old stars like George Clooney, Noah Wyle, Julianna Margulies, and Anthony Edwards for swan-song appearances. But the wheels had come off the bus years before then, with increasingly implausible “event” episodes (exploding helicopters, serial killers, tanks, bombs, hostage situations, virus outbreaks, etc.) eroding the show’s early strength: its sense of realism. Sure, ER always had a knack for big-scale drama, but it became so huge that it lost its grasp on plausibility as the seasons went on.
That original cast (Edwards, Margulies, Clooney, Wyle, Sherry Stringfield, and the great Eriq La Salle) and a few other regulars introduced in the early going (Laura Innes, Gloria Reuben, William H. Macy, and CCH Pounder) helped keep things focused when the dialogue got too technical. The show lasted so long that it had a completely separate, second ensemble, anchored by Maura Tierney, Goran Višnjić, and Mekhi Phifer. That cast did good work but was increasingly hampered by the show’s ridiculous twists and turns. As things dragged on, ER’s somewhat bleak outlook grew overwhelmingly dark, with misery around the corner for pretty much every character.
This list will focus on ER’s early days. Its first four seasons are uniformly excellent television, and the sixth season (where Margulies departs the cast) is the last truly satisfying one. There are occasional standout episodes from later on, but they’re not noteworthy enough to merit Top 10 status.
“Blizzard” (season one, episode 10): ER doesn’t exactly hit the ground running—the two-hour pilot sets the tone for the show, but as with many first episodes, it feels a little stilted. “Blizzard” was one of the first and best “epic” episodes, showing a nearly empty, understaffed hospital react to a catastrophic highway accident during typically bad Chicago winter weather. Watching the characters spring into action after a languid first act—which includes a great opening shot of a nurse roller-skating through the hospital halls—is thrilling, and the unexpected twist of Polish desk clerk Bob performing emergency surgery (turns out she was a doctor in the old country) is a great surprise—and a well ER returned to for years to come.
“Love’s Labor Lost” (season one, episode 19): A gut-wrenching, miserable, utterly compelling hour that sees Mark Greene (Edwards) preside over an otherwise ordinary labor that goes wrong at every single point. Unlike many of the show’s later tragic turns, there’s nothing extraordinary going on here. No one shoots a rocket launcher or runs around with a gun. This is just horrible luck and the unfortunate reality of the quick decisions ER doctors have to make. The psychological reverberations Greene experiences, which last into the second season, feel well-earned. Both this and “Blizzard” were directed by Mimi Leder, who went on to make blockbusters like Deep Impact and The Peacemaker and helped set the show’s visual tone and kinetic filming style. It also features Bradley Whitford, who delivers a particularly compelling guest-star turn as the baffled, grieving father. ER lent itself well to big, dramatic one-shot appearances by well-known guest stars.
“Hell And High Water” (season two, episode seven): The rakish Doug Ross (Clooney), about to lose his job at the hospital, rescues a boy trapped in a storm drain, saving his own reputation in the process. It’s undeniably fun, heart-stopping TV that set the benchmark for ER’s popularity with 48 million viewers and established Clooney’s first wave of super-stardom. (He was cast as Batman a year later.) There’s a slightly hackneyed feel to the episode (the “kid in peril” thing feels a few steps removed from Lassie), but it’s the good kind of hackneyed, the kind that makes you want to punch the air and call a friend. Producer Steven Spielberg (who helped shepherd the show onto TV and executive-produced the first season) was no longer involved in the series at this point, but there’s a strong whiff of his presence here.
“Union Station” (season three, episode eight): The first cast member to depart the show was Stringfield as the harried Dr. Susan Lewis, who was tormented by a dark family life and screw-up sister. Her flirtation with Edwards’ Dr. Greene (whose marriage quickly disintegrated as the writers realized what fun they could have with him single) was one of the show’s original long-running threads, and her departure came right as Greene finally worked up the courage to declare his love and beg her to stay with him. This is just as hackneyed as rescuing the kid in the drain, but Edwards (perpetually frustrated as the stuffy ol’ Greene) made viewers feel Greene’s pain.
“Night Shift” (season three, episode 11): Every ER fan has a favorite character out of the original cast, but the ornery, driven Peter Benton (La Salle) is a strong contender for the title. His emotional shell was the toughest to crack, but what peeked out from behind that shell always made for memorable moments. “Night Shift” is a particularly dark episode, but still keeps within the realistic confines of the early seasons. Benton’s relentlessly tough attitude toward student Dennis Gant (Omar Epps) comes to a head as a train-jumper gets wheeled in—wearing Gant’s pager. It’s one of ER’s best twists of the knife, and one that sets off a crisis of conscience for the normally unshakable Benton.
“Ambush” (season four, episode one): Sparked by Clooney’s long-abiding interest in live television dramas, ER pulled off the remarkable feat of a live episode to start its fourth season, broadcast twice (once for each coast) without a hitch. The show’s traditional Steadicam work, impossible to replicate live, was eschewed for a point-of-view documentary gimmick, but that the whole thing happened at all is rather remarkable. “Ambush” is less memorable for its actual story, but for a show that’s remembered for its technical flourishes, it’s a substantial milestone.
“Exodus” (season four, episode 15): ER never outdid this action-packed hour, even though its pyrotechnics budget doesn’t come close to some of the series’ later epics. As a chemical spill brings dozens of patients to the ER and makes one out of boss Kerry Weaver (Innes), student John Carter (Wyle) has to step up and run the massive trauma incident. The best “event” episodes of ER have an electric, cinematic quality that network TV rarely manages to achieve. Yet they wouldn’t work without the show’s sterling ensemble, and episodes like “Exodus” have an immense amount of fun bouncing between characters in nail-biting situations. In this one, Ross and will-they/won’t-they love interest Nurse Carol Hathaway (Margulies) are stuck in an elevator with a sick girl as their own romantic tensions continue to bubble.
“The Good Fight” (season five, episode eight): By its fifth season (Clooney’s last as a regular), ER was beginning to wane in quality and tend toward unnecessary, bombastic drama. Clooney’s exit in the two-parter “The Storm” is undoubtedly compelling, but it features the kind of insane coincidences and big-budget action moments that would come to dominate later seasons. But there was still room for standout hours like “The Good Fight,” which tells a simple medical-drama plot well: Benton tries to save a dying girl on the surgery table while Carter and intern Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) search for the girl’s father, who can give her blood. There’s that old-school Spielbergian style at work again, and it’s effective stuff.
“All In The Family” (season six, episode 14) The follow-up to the wrenching cliffhanger of “Be Still My Heart,” which killed off Lucy Knight in horrifying fashion (she’s stabbed to death by David Krumholtz, of all people) simply can’t be ignored in a rundown of ER lore. (Really, you should watch both.) The shocking conclusion to “Be Still My Heart,” where Carter is stabbed, falls to the ground, and locks eyes with a bleeding, dying Lucy Knight, is truly chilling to watch, even now. The dramatics of “All In The Family” (which include Paul McCrane’s hothead chief of staff Robert Romano overturning a surgery table) err on the good side of cliché, but that’s mostly because viewers cared about Knight surviving. Later character deaths (especially Romano’s death by helicopter) were too bombastic to really resonate.
“Such Sweet Sorrow” (season six, episode 21): For those taking a trip down memory lane and watching old ER DVDs (which is highly recommended), this episode is the best place to stop. It bids farewell to Nurse Hathaway and sees her, in an unexpected but completely necessary final twist, reunite with Ross, who had left a year before. NBC actually managed to keep Clooney’s surprise cameo a secret, something that would never happen now. It makes for an excellent coda to the show’s years as an elite drama. The long, slow decline begins in the very next episode, the season finale.
And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Into That Good Night” (season one, episode five), “Motherhood” (season one, episode 24), “A Miracle Happens Here” (season two, episode 10), “John Carter, M.D.” (season two, episode 22), “Whose Appy Now?” (season three, episode 14), “Of Past Regret And Future Fear” (season four, episode 20), “Day For Knight” (season five, episode one), “Good Luck, Ruth Johnson” (season five, episode nine), “Secrets And Lies” (season eight, episode 16), “Orion In The Sky” (season eight, episode 18).
Availability: A handful of clips are up on YouTube, but the best way to watch ER remains on DVD. The whole series is out, and most seasons are fairly inexpensive.
Next week: Noel Murray offers 10 episodes of a very different medical series, checking out the 4077th on M*A*S*H.