Legend has it that before the stellar premiere of “ER,” Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC on the West Coast, didn’t give a dime for it. “Nobody’s going to see ‘ER’,” were apparently his words. His reasons: “There are too many characters and he has neither head nor tail.” Ohlmeyer was wrong: between 1996 and 1997, with the broadcast of its third and fourth seasons, the hospital drama brought in around 30 million television viewers, live, in the United States alone. We’re talking over forty percent “share”.
Super Bowl figures difficult to reach for a fiction in the era of streaming, when everyone seems to be watching a different series and you don’t have to wait ten o’clock at night to enjoy it. It is precisely on a platform, HBO Max, that from Sunday 17, we can recover the fortnight! seasons of ‘ER’and in brilliant HD too.
Crichton’s creation (at least)
The novelist and, let us remember, doctor Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park”, etc.) wrote the initial screenplay for “ER”, initially for the cinema, based on his own experience as a resident in a Boston hospital. Back in 1974, that script must have been something old, but in the early 90s, when the opportunity to make it a series arose, it was even older. “The nurses were called ‘nurses’ on every page,” the producer recalled. John Wells in the book ‘Top of the rock’, about the glory years of NBC. “All the doctors were white, and they were all men.”
We usually talk loudly about Crichton whenever we talk about “ER”, but not so much about Wells, ultimately the real father of the series, its “showrunner” during its first three iconic seasons. In the aforementioned book on NBC, the actor Anthony Edwards (Dr Greene) clarifies responsibilities: “It was always clear to me that John Wells was telling the story. Inspired by Michael Crichton’s experience, but it was clear that Wells was in control.”
characters to love
It was Wells who gave diversity and delicacy of nuance to the human landscape of the ER in Chicago, not Boston, where the series takes place: the patients, but especially the doctors, the nurses (with their own names) and the staff administrative. personal. The weekly medical emergencies intersect with the love life and personal ups and downs of a group of professionals who are as heroic as they are believable.
And also adorable. Well, not all the same or every time, but that’s what happens when you write to human beings. The initial central sextet is legendary: there was Greene (Edwards), every mother’s dream son-in-law; Pediatrician Ross (George Clooney, then still no stars); Nurse Hathaway (Julianna Margulies), ex of the previous one, who was supposed to die in the pilot, but they ended up seeing too much interest for that; the intelligent and sensitive Dr. Lewis (Sherry Stringfield); nonsense, not always sympathetic Dr. Benton (Eric La Salle), and the disciple of the previous one, the rookie Carter (Noah Wyle).
A vertiginous style
Like the real ones, the ‘ER’ doctors didn’t have time to stop and say, “How stressful this job is.” They lived in constant motion, followed closely by a more agile camera than usual on television at the time. Having to shoot long and fast in the pilot led to a frantic style, began to define the pilot by a veteran director Rod Holcomb (‘Hill Street Sad Song’), but just found by the great Mimi Leder in the second episode and the other five he did in the first season.
We tend to refer to “the West Wing of the White House” with gusto whenever we talk about the technique of ‘walk and talk’ (“walk and talk”), consisting of placing the camera in front of a character who, while walking, meets another who starts a conversation, perhaps later weighed down by interruptions or animated by a third interlocutor. But ‘ER’ has done it often before and with great brilliance.
Who would want to leave such a demanding but, at the same time, stimulating series, with these audiences and apparently also succulent salaries? Well, basically all of the protagonists. First to throw in the towel, at the start of the third season, was Stringfield, seeking not more, but less glory. He returned on the eighth and left on the twelfth. Clooney left after the fifth for a movie career that needs no explanation. Margulies did so a year later with similar intentions, but only once again had real success on television, as the excellent lead actress in “The Good Wife.” Edwards and La Salle lasted until the eighth; the former was splendid recently in ‘Qui est Anna?’. The most patient was Wyle, faithful to the project until the eleventh season and a distinguished guest in the last, less eternal than the first.