Starring: Anthony Edwards, George Clooney, Sherry Stringfield, Noah Wyle, Julianna Margulies, Gloria Reuben, Laura Innes, Eriq La Salle
Series Creator: Michael Crichton
One downfall of the otherwise wonderful DVD TV box set market is watching earlier seasons of ongoing show that markedly show you how far the show has slipped in quality. I experienced that with the first four seasons of The West Wing, and the effect was even greater while watching the third season of the once-mighty ER franchise.
Season three saw the series at the height of its power, beginning the season with the original cast intact (Sherry Stringfield, who starred as Dr. Susan Lewis, began the cast exodus this season, leaving about a third of the way in. She would return to the show five seasons later). At this point of the series, the cast and crew had the character's down perfectly, and were able to play with them and tell stories without contradicting themselves. The show stuck to its original intent and mission, to tell stories about the men and women who work in emergency medicine and the struggles they face. The characters are portrayed as quasi-heroes, while still be shown to be fallible and human. The show was "must see TV" because of its high quality writing, acting, and direction.
By contrast, the current version of ER has lost every original cast member with Noah Wylie's Dr. John Carter having left at the end of last season (the show's eleventh) and Stringfield leaving again at the beginning of this season (season 12). Among the top billed actors of season three, only Laura Innes' Dr. Kerry Weaver remains on the show, and Weaver only briefly pops up on the current shows. The series long ago lost the feel good hero theme to the show, save for the odd episode, instead choosing to go the route of constant battling and conflict amongst characters. Many of the current characters on the show are so flawed, or underdeveloped, that it's hard for the viewer to cheer for them. Moreover, the characters often seem like inter-changeable parts, perhaps due to the revolving cast, making the show less about the men and women who work in emergency medicine, and more about medicine itself. It reflects the current popularity of process shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, but is less appealing than the earlier shows.
But the worst thing about the current shows in comparison to the ones found in this set is that every episode is "the... most... shocking... ever". No longer confident in the abilities of the cast and writing to create buzz, the series producers instead deluge the audience with crisis after crisis in blatant ratings grabs. The show is still a decent viewing, but it's a mere shell of what it used to be.
And what it used to be, in seasons like season three, is a phenomenally written drama that combines drama, humour, suspense, and even action to put the viewer through an emotional roller coaster that makes the show as enjoyable to watch as it is cathartic. There is tension between the characters, but there's also a sense of family. There are crisis to deal with, but nothing so big that it feels out of place in a medical drama (for instance, there has yet to be a helicopter crash in the hospital, or a runaway tank).
The greatest appeal of the season are the characters. George Clooney shone as Dr. Doug Ross, in a season that was a marked turning point for the character. To begin season three, Ross is in full-on playboy mode, seemingly hooking up with a different woman in every episode. But, when one of those random women, whose name he didn't even know, ends up dying in the ER from a seizure after spending the night with him, he is forced to curtail his womanising ways. Ross matures before our eyes, but in a slow, progressive way.
Anthony Edwards' Dr. Mark Greene followed a different path, beginning the season in full-on Saint Mark mode. Always the golden boy of the show, the show decided to show some of the tarnishes on Greene's halo this season. He's shown as ornery and rude following the departure of his unrequited love Dr. Lewis, as a distant father at times with his daughter Rachel, and even a bit of a racist. Then, he gets savagely beaten by a random assailant, and melts down. Throughout his ordeals, all of the changes felt authentic, a credit to the writing and Edwards.
Other highlights include the progress of Dr. Carter as a first year resident, the arrogant Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) learning humility and becoming a father, the softening of the image of Dr. Weaver, Nurse Carol Hathaway's (Julianna Margulies) crisis of faith in herself and her job, PA Jeanie Boulet's (Gloria Reuben) struggles with HIV, and guest/supporting appearances by Omar Epps, Kirsten Dunst, Ewan McGregor, William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Lisa Nicole Carson, Jorga Fox, Jami Gertz, and Michael Beach.
It's funny, for both this season and the second season, I wasn't that excited to watch them when we first bought them. But then we start watching them, and I remember how good the show used to be, and before you know it, we've whipped through it. The show is frustratingly slow in coming out on DVD (only eight more seasons to go, although I'm sure we'll stop buying them once the quality drops in the later seasons), but is definitely worth it when it finally does. It truly was one of the best shows on television at one point, and it's great to be reminded of that.
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