Prior to ER, St. Elsewhere was TV's most realistic hospital series, dealing with the exhaustion of interns, the hopelessness of some patients, and the bureaucratic nonsense at a decrepit Boston hospital. Today, St. Elsewhere looks charmingly conventional, with its emphasis on self-contained stories and likeable doctors. But coming as it did just after the stylistic breakthrough of Hill Street Blues, the show seemed like part of a wave of artistically vibrant, refreshingly real dramas featuring imaginative camerawork, frank dialogue, and active engagement with contemporary life.
People watching the St. Elsewhere: Season One DVD set might not notice any of this right away, because there are too many distractions, like the still-stirring Mike Post theme song, and a cast that included Howie Mandel, Denzel Washington, and David Morse, all very early in their careers. None of them were the stars per se, though Morse got a lot of play in the early going as an overworked intern with a neglected pregnant wife at home. The show focused more on the hospital's old guard—prickly chief surgeon William Daniels and humane administrator Ed Flanders—and its young-stud surgeon Ed Begley Jr. An average episode flipped between some guest star's disease-of-the-week and the serialized troubles of the staff, which were largely romantic and/or professional in nature—though one early arc concerned the proper treatment of a terrorist bomber, played by, believe it or not, Tim Robbins.
St. Elsewhere sometimes succumbed to "big speech" syndrome, ending an episode with some doctor's crisis of conscience, salved by a wise elder's "you'll be okay" pep talk. But the everyone-pulls-together spirit is refreshing now, after a succession of modern workplace dramas where nearly everyone's a prick. And St. Elsewhere had its grim ironies, too. The show emphasized how politics and poverty could get in the way of patient care, and while creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey displayed the same sense of whimsy they later brought to Northern Exposure, producer-writer Tom Fontana focused on colorful talk and naturalism, as he later would on Homicide and Oz. This was often a bracingly low-key show, where an overheard conversation about surgical procedures would be followed by an overheard conversation about favorite recipes.
Key features: A serviceable commentary and featurette on the first season's Emmy-winning episode "Cora And Arnie," about a homeless couple played by Doris Roberts and James Coco.