Judge Diane Wild remembers when the ER was a happy place, filled with your garden variety gunshot wounds, maimings, and psychotics.
Our reviews of ER: The Complete Fifth Season (published August 23rd, 2006), ER: The Complete Sixth Season (published January 24th, 2007), ER: The Complete Eighth Season (published March 5th, 2008), ER: The Complete Ninth Season (published October 1st, 2008), ER: The Complete Tenth Season (published May 13th, 2009), ER: The Complete Fourteenth Season (published April 7th, 2011), ER: The Complete First Season (published October 6th, 2004), ER: The Complete Twelfth Season (published January 12th, 2010), and ER: The Final Season (published August 25th, 2011) are also available.
Dr. John Carter: "Why am I doing this again?"
After over 10 years on the air, ER has toppled from the top of the ratings charts and the television guide headlines, but thanks to the magic of DVDs, we can relive its heyday. Season Three was ER near the top of its game, engrossing and addictive, with a great blend of medical and personal chaos mixed with the occasional playful respite. It erred on the side of soapiness, but generally pulled itself back from the brink with effective and affecting medical dramas.
Facts of the Case
Season Three begins with John Carter (Noah Wyle, The Myth of Fingerprints)'s first day as a full-fledged doctor, just beginning his surgical internship—nicely mirroring the series opener when he arrives at County General as a fresh-faced med student. One of the themes this year is the grueling work schedule of the interns and the personal consequences of their dedication to medicine. Some of those consequences are a result of critical residents like Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle), who continues to torment Carter and the new intern, Dennis Gant (Omar Epps, Love and Basketball).
Carter neglects his friendship with Gant in favor of an affair with pediatric surgeon Abby Keaton (Glenne Headly, Dick Tracy), who is not only the touch-feely antithesis to Benton, but is his supervisor.
After Benton's arrogance almost kills a baby he performed surgery on, and Carter partially blames him for Gant's suicide, his normally implacable ego is shaken. This season also sees him struggling with a strained relationship with Carla (Lisa Nicole Carson, Ally McBeal) and impending fatherhood, as well as the revelation that former lover Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben) is HIV positive.
Throughout the season, Jeanie travels a path from hiding her diagnosis out of fear for her job, to having her secret leaked to her superiors, to openly challenging fears and prejudices. She also enters into her first post-diagnosis relationship and comes to forgive her ex-husband Al (Michael Beach, Third Watch), who infected her after years of cheating.
Womanizing Doug Ross (George Clooney, Out of Sight) hits rock bottom after he's forced to bring his sordid personal life into the ER when a one-night stand has a seizure. He rebounds through a connection with street kid Charlie (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man), then by realizing he wants to pursue old flame Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies, The Grid).
Dissatisfied with taking orders from interns younger than her, like newcomer Maggie Doyle (Jorja Fox, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), Carol starts taking pre-med courses and considering a career change. As head nurse, she also has to deal with the nurses' contract dispute and sickout, which leads to her making a fatal mistake in the ER.
Though attendings Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards Top Gun) and Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield, Dead Simple) begin an awkward dance of wondering if they have feelings for each other, her departure midway through the season to join sister Chloe and baby Susie in Phoenix puts an end to the promised romance. Greene's downward spiral that begins after she leaves escalates when he wonders if a questionable treatment decision was based on his racial prejudice, and further when he is beat up on the job.
A medical show, particularly one set in the Emergency department, already has the drama quotient built-in. ER deals with life and death, and the people whose actions and decisions place them in a god-like position. Not content to rest on that obvious dramatic potential, ER thrives on conflict of every kind: nurses versus doctors, interns versus residents, residents versus attendings, doctors versus patients, and any combination of the above. In the chaos of the ER, and the mix of medical and personal, heavy and light stories, there is always enough going on to keep the pace varied.
With Carter and Hathaway debating career choices, and Benton and Ross questioning themselves, it was a season for characters to flounder—a tendency that occasionally crossed the line into floundering characterization. In playing with our assumptions about them, the show sometimes adds depth to the characters and sometimes forces them into ill-fitting roles for the sake of the story.
You know it's a strange season when Kerry Weaver comes across as more sympathetic than Mark Greene. She benefits from a wonderful scene where she subtly lets Jeanie know that she has guessed her HIV status and that she will support her through any difficulties. Greene, however, is a bit of a mess this season. He decides he's in love with one of his best friends, but tells her only as she gets on the train to Phoenix, then bounces from a chemistry-free affair with nurse Chuny to a series of dates with guest stars. Professionally, we see a dark side of the nice doctor, as he plays the judgmental role in Jeanie's HIV reveal, in Ross's public promiscuity, and in the racially charged episode "Tribes." Layer after layer of darkness is piled onto Greene, and towards the end of the season he becomes one of the first victims of the show's slide into unrelieved bleakness.
As Dennis Gant the doomed intern, Omar Epps played out one of the most horrifying patient stories—not so much for its gore, though there is that (he stepped in front of a train), but because of the surprise of it to both the audience and the characters, and because we knew him and his despair hidden by bravado. (Fortunately for those of us who like happy endings, "doctor" Epps has been resurrected in the refreshing medical drama House, where he has survived an entire season so far.)
Gant's story allowed for an interesting development in the relationship between sweet Carter and prickly Benton, a relationship that evolved over the years into a powerful bond between unequals. After Gant's death, Carter first blames Benton, but then tries to pull him back from his withdrawal. At one point, Carter acknowledges the importance of his mentorship: "Everything I did, you taught me."
The romantic in me has to say that Ross and Hathaway were one of best written romances on television, and one of the rare ones that didn't overtake and ruin the show. This season, as he quietly but determinedly pursues her, she's immune to his charm but still obviously has affection for him.
Real life interfered with the show, with Sherry Stringfield's departure and George Clooney filming Batman & Robin. Ross has some strong episodes, but for the most part he seems a shadow of his charming rogue self—possibly explained in the commentary that reveals not only did the combined Batman/ER shooting schedules leave Clooney exhausted, but he had to read his lines taped to various props. Maria Bello (The Cooler) joined the cast late in the season, but barely has a chance to make an impression.
With the strong ensemble cast and well-drawn supporting characters, including recurring brief appearances by William H. Macy, CCH Pounder, Jami Gertz, and Henry Lennix, ER proves the depth of its bullpen with each episode.
And there were some great episodes this season, including "Fear of Flying," where Lewis confronts her fear during a helicopter rescue of accident victims, and Benton confronts the fact that he may not be cut out for pediatric surgery. Another highlight is "Who's Appy Now," where Carter gleefully performs an appendectomy on a vulnerable Benton and where Ross is torn when a 17-year-old boy with cystic fibrosis wants to sign a DNR against his mother's wishes. "The Long Way Around" has Hathaway in a convenience store hold up and hostage taking, and while I'm not usually a fan of episodes that pull a character out of the normal show setup, this is an exception. It works partly because Carol is such a watchable character, and partly because Ewan McGregor plays the wonderfully sympathetic bad guy in a tense story whose ending is unexpected.
"Tribes" is less successful storytelling, but it is important in the continuing drama of the show and tackles some important issues, including unconscious racial assumptions. Its failing is that it uses characters as ideas, but they're powerful ideas. As Haleh, a black nurse, tells Greene, the white doctor who made assumptions about two shooting victims based on their races: "When something happens, you say it's got nothing to do with race. But for us, it's always got to do with race."
Warner Bros. put a decent effort into the technical aspects of this set, with a crystal clear widescreen transfer, boasting great, natural color. The Dolby Digital 2.0 that hits on the chaos of the ER through effective use of the surrounds without sacrificing dialogue clarity. It's surprising that they didn't spring for a 5.1 track, but what's here is well done.
I have some quibbles with the design of the boxed set, since you have to take odd numbered discs out of their holders before you can access even numbered ones. But there's a good selection of extras, episode-specific menus, and a detailed booklet to make up for it. The commentary for "Union Station" has director Tom Moore and editor Kevin Casey speaking about the technical side to shooting the show, while director Felix Enrique Alcala, writer Neal Baer, editor Jacques Toberen, and actors Noah Wyle and Veronica Cartwright (as the CF patient's mother) provide more character insight on "Whose Appy Now." A featurette focusing on "Fear of Flying" highlights interviews with the cast and crew and touches on themes of the season as well as that specific episode, and another called "The Nurses Station" showcases the supporting cast of nurses and desk staff. Also included are a blooper reel and deleted scenes.
For fans of ER, Season Three is one for the collection, before the original cast had dispersed and every personal story was taken to its darkest endpoint. Even the casual viewer, or those who came late to the ER party, will find it a happy respite from the tired version that still airs.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary on two episodes
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