Warner Bros. // 1994 // 1179 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Sandra Dozier (Retired) // October 6th, 2004
"If you have been in an automobile accident and you are in the back of an ambulance, when the doors of that ambulance open and you are coming out on the gurney, these are the people whose faces you want to see." -- John Wells, co-creator, March 2003
It's difficult, in retrospect, to imagine any network passing on ER or doubting that it would do well with audiences, but that is exactly what happened until NBC took a chance on the project. When studio executives saw a rough cut of the pilot, with its documentary-style steadicam shots, fast cuts, and tight editing, they got even more concerned. By then, of course, they were committed, so ER debuted on Thursday night at 10:00, and the world of television medical drama hasn't been the same since.
The show is now in its tenth season on the air and continues to draw audiences. The first season garnered eight Emmy awards and almost double that number of nominations. This phenomenal success has given Warner Home Video the backing to put together an equally impressive first-season boxed set that is bursting with extra footage and a brand-new widescreen transfer.
ER is a show about the lives, loves, and losses of a group of doctors and nurses in an inner-city Chicago hospital emergency room. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) is a sympathetic, caring doctor who takes his job so seriously that he loses touch with his personal relationships and priorities even as his career starts taking off. His counterpart, Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle), is the opposite of Greene's careful and thoughtful doctor -- he is brash, arrogant, and sure of himself. Both have a considerable amount of skill and talent and form the yin/yang soul of the team. At its heart is nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies), a character that was intended for only the pilot but tested so well that she was kept on as a regular cast member. Her empathy for her patients and the other doctors grounds the group. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) has a similar empathy and grace, and a certain vulnerability that is hidden behind her steely demeanor. Finally, there is the newbie student doctor John Carter (Noah Wyle), who is brilliant but self-doubting, and who acts as a sort of guide for the audience due to being new on the floor.
Far from just seeing the hospital lives of these doctors, we are also given a glimpse into their personal lives, as we catch them taking catnaps in closed rooms, sneaking kisses with loved ones who drop by the hospital just to spend a little time together, and dealing with personal situations that threaten to overwhelm their professional lives, such as Dr. Lewis's struggle with her shiftless, wayward sister Chloe (Kathleen Wilhoite) or Dr. Green's disintegrating marriage.
In addition to all 24 episodes from the first season in widescreen format, the following extras are also included with this set:
* "Prescription for Success: The Birth of ER" -- What did it take to get ER off the ground? This featurette goes in depth into creator Michael Crichton's thought process, his collaboration with Stephen Spielberg, and what it took to convince NBC to give them a shot.
* "First-Year Rotation: Caring for ER" -- From casting to Newsweek to eight Emmys, the ups and downs of Season One, as told by the actors and crew that made it happen.
* "On the Cutting Edge: Medical Realism on ER" -- This featurette details the efforts of cast and crew to give the show a high level of authenticity, always the show's number one priority, both in dialogue and work with props.
* "Post-Operative Procedures: Post-Production in the ER" -- Editing, sound mixing, music, and special effects work is as fast-paced as the show itself. This featurette looks at the team that puts this together and the composers for the title music and show soundtrack.
* Audio commentaries -- Producers and crew sit in for scene-specific commentary on key episodes from Season One, including multiple-award winner "Love's Labor Lost."
* Additional scenes -- Three brief scenes, which are unfinished and still have director cues whispered in the background.
* Outtakes -- With so much medical dialogue for the actors to memorize, it's no surprise that outtakes comprise an extensive section of the extras. This section also showcases the many elements involved in a single scene as Noah Wyle voices a complicated string of medical jargon while walking down a bustling hall with Eriq La Salle for four takes.
* "First-Year Intern Handbook" -- A static encyclopedia of major and minor characters, including some of the patients and peripheral characters that appeared in Season One.
ER did not want to be a modern-day Quincy or even a redux of St. Elsewhere, the popular and groundbreaking hospital series from 1982. It wanted to be a whole other animal, a show that dared to show doctors who got tired, made mistakes, and regretted their decisions from time to time. In other words, it wanted to show the real emergency room experience, the good and the bad.
It was a long time coming. Michael Crichton, who is perhaps best known for his Jurassic Park books, was a medical student before getting into the book-writing business, and he had been incubating the idea in his head for twenty years. He had been seriously developing it when he met Stephen Spielberg, and the two collaborated on bringing his dinosaur books to the big screen, diverting him away from ER for a time. Later Spielberg stepped up again to help bring ER to television. When studios first heard of the project, they gave the same feedback every time: too many characters, too complex, too much.
NBC almost passed, too, but at the eleventh hour the show was given a green light and they got to work. ER was filmed in a recently abandoned hospital in Los Angeles, so the set was very practical in terms of authenticity. However, it was also cramped and unsuitable for laying dolly track that would steady the camera. As a result, the series was shot almost entirely with fixed and steadicam equipment, giving it the documentary look that has become a trademark of the series.
To build on this strong foundation, actors were required to learn how to handle medical equipment and speak pages of medical jargon along the lines of "get me a CBC, chest film, C-spine, blood gases, chem-7, and an EKG!" In addition, they had to be able to deliver these lines at top speed, often while pantomiming a medical procedure or working with a patient in some other way, and sell it with a high degree of realism and familiarity, as if this was old hat. No other medical show had taken such a risk with the audience -- actors barked out authentic dialogue that only a small percentage of viewers were likely to understand and offered no explanation to the layman as to what they were saying. Would the audience get it? Or would they give up and tune out, as the studios feared?
They got it. Big time. And they continued to get it as the season progressed, getting to know the doctors and their extraordinary lives in the ER. The show did not stop pushing the boundaries there, however, and continued to take risks, trusting the audience to go along. In one particularly moving episode, "Love's Labor Lost," Dr. Green makes a mistake that costs the life of a young mother. Since we have followed her anxious husband throughout most of the episode, we are grieving with him when Dr. Green delivers the news. His pain is so real, so intense and raw, I doubt there was a dry eye in any viewing household that night. It's this combination of heart-pumping realism and raw intensity that electrified viewers and kept them glued to the set, no matter how squeamish they might be about blood and hospitals.
The creators acknowledged that the audience often got their impression of medicine from television hospital dramas, and they made it a top priority that realism would always be extremely high -- every procedure was blocked out by medical consultants, with real equipment and terminology used at all times, even if the audience wouldn't understand it. In one of the later seasons, a woman viewing one episode observed a diagnosis of symptoms in a patient that pointed to a rare type of brain tumor, and was astonished to recognize her own easily ignored symptoms. She saw a doctor the next day and was diagnosed with the same type of tumor.
ER is a show that has touched many people and earned loyal fans who have stayed with the series even through its many changes. They have now been rewarded with a gorgeous Season One boxed set that has several new featurettes, deleted scenes, and outtakes. The extras are very slick and excellently produced, clocking in at about 20 minutes each (except for the five-minute "Post-Production" featurette). The studio provides a solid documentary folio of information for the series, and the "First-Year Intern Handbook" is useful to reference actors and roles from Season One.
Picture and audio are also excellent, with a brand-new widescreen transfer that is very clear and richly colored, with no visible defects on the image. The 2.0 Dolby Digital surround track is well-mixed and clear, with a good balance between voices and ambient noise, so you aren't constantly adjusting the volume as new, louder scenes begin.
It doesn't get much better than this -- widescreen transfer, two commentaries for the pilot episode, well-done extras, 24 episodes on four double-sided discs. Warner Home Video has outdone themselves for this release, and any fan wishing to experience ER again from square one should be pleased by this boxed set.
This court finds ER not guilty of television medical malpractice!
Review content copyright © 2004 Sandra Dozier; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Italian)
Running Time: 1179 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Prescription for Success: The Birth of ER" Featurette
* "First-Year Rotation: Caring for ER" Featurette
* "On the Cutting Edge: Medical Realism in ER" Featurette
* "Post-Operative Procedures: Post-Production in the ER" Featurette
* Audio Commentary on "Pilot," "Sleepless in Chicago," and "Love's Labor Lost"
* First-Year Intern Handbook
* Additional Scenes and Outtakes
* Official Site