Nurse, the screens!
The cast of Emergency Room
As Hillary Clinton pushes for public healthcare reform, a group of underpaid and overworked doctors is ﬁghting a frontline battle in America’s newest television drama, E.R. John Macure, the houseman who created the hospital series Cardiac: Arrest, says ‘stand clear‘ for a
jolt of fast-paced medical action.
merica‘s hottest new drama. ER. is a
rollercoaster ride through the sleepless. adrenalist chaos of
Chicago County General’s emergency room. Labelled .S'i‘llii‘A‘iiS‘i‘ll by American Newsweek, it lurches from resuscitation to another, pausing occasionally for character moments or amusing patient vignettes.
It took series creator Michael Crichton. author of Jurassic Park and a former doctor. twenty years to convince a television network to make ER. A team of writers. working to a storyboard headed by the legend ‘SPEED‘. culled stories from real hospitals and worked them into the lives of ERfs characters. while medical advisers supervised production and real medics played extras during filming. ER. is high quality American television in the company of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. It is energetic. though not as fast as I expected; there’s humour and sentimentality. and the characters make up in charisma what they lack in credibility.
Chief Resident Dr Mark Greene (Mike in Northern l:‘.t'p().s'to'e. whose multiple allergies thwarted his affair with Maggie) is a principled man with domestic problems: ‘the er. looks to you in a crisis.‘ his boss tells him three times in 90 minutes.
And so to the other key players in this ensemble cast. Dr Douglas Ross (George Clooney) is a heavy-drinking heart throb. Again. in case we were in any doubt after hearing him boast drunkenly of his conquests, a nurse oblingingly reminds us that he is ‘handsome and knows it'. In looks and character. Dr Ross is almost identical to Dr Peter White from St
Elsewhere. Meanwhile. Dr Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) is described as a git and is the spit of Denzel Washington‘s Dr Phil Chandler. also in St Elsewhere. Sherry Stringﬁeld. who played the tough-but-beautiful Laura Kelly in NYPD Blue. stars as beautiful-but-tough Dr Susan Lewis. Lastly, John Carter (Noah Whyle) is the new medical student alongside whom we are introduced to the department.
Patient after patient bounces in, pulls through or dies, gets a clean bill of health or a terminal prognosis
l:‘.R.‘s style has been described as unique. but this is well-meaning overstatcment. The labyrinthine set lills the frame with bodies and business. there is extensive use of Steadicam and trolley mounts. while the narrative texture is derivative of Hill Street and NYI’I). The pilot omits a single big story and instead we are thrown the ER. ethos. Patient after patient bounces in. pulls through or dies. gets a clean bill of health or a terminal prognosis; Benton hassles. Carter fumbles. Ross flirts. Lewis takes calls from her ex. Greene‘s wife and daughter have to come to the hospital if they are ever to see him.
The makers claim this frantic style means they cannot tell whole stories. In fact. we should thank them for sparing us the tedious elements of conventional television story-telling — you know, the tremulous old lady pouring a boiling kettle. then to Casualty. burns dressed and a chat about her dead husband, ‘perhaps we should sort out a Home Help . . .’
My only signiﬁcant quibble with ER. is that it sentimentalises medicine. First. student doctor Caner gazes in wide-eyed wonderment at the miracle of childbirth. Later. when he feels sick after witnessing a gory case. Greene consoles him: ‘Helping patients is more important than how we feel.‘ but in reality it’s a statement that would only nauseate him further. In The Good. The Bad and The Ugly. Clint Eastwood tells Eli Wallach that the two kinds of people are those who dig and those who have guns. while Greene contrasts those who keep their feelings and those who get rid of them. Utterly absent are the cynicism and sick humour of young doctors everywhere, as central to Samuel Shem‘s American novel The House of God as it is to Britain’s Houseman ’s Tale and Cardiac Arrest.
However. I do sense that the makers have tried to tackle the problems associated with bringing medical realism to the screen. Doctors talk like doctors and patients act like patients. instead of the fantasy of hospital staff speaking a non- existent pidgin jargon while facing inaner melodramatic patients with ludicrously obscure diseases (Casualty. St Elsewhere). The medical procedures were rendered as accurately as the medium allows. Actors find it very difficult to fake receiving an electric shock from a defibrillator, passing tubes into the throat is almost impossible to shoot and a lot of inaccuracies occur in editing when the medical advisers aren’t around.
Viewers may be surprised that American medicine is so similar to the British variety. We have been conned into thinking otherwise by soaps like Dr K ildare and St Elsewhere. just as Casualty and Medics mislead the public about what goes on in British hospitals. I felt that the claustrophobia of the emergency room was well-realised and I particularly connected with the doctors' surprise at how the weather has changed so much each time they snatched a glimpse of the outside world. Okay. American doctors are older — like 30 or worse.
But the real difference is money. Just American doctors are paid more than ours. ER. can afford a wonderful set, a vast production team and a huge supporting cast mixing character actors and Baywatch types. For example, they are able to include numerous. sometimes amusing vignettes to maintain the jogging pace: a cop shot by his wife; a teenager who has wrecked her father’s new Cadillac: a cabbie whose passenger is giving birth. and so on. In this country. the casting alone would be prohibitively expensive.
It bothers me that there are reasons other than finances why we would never make ER. in this
country. The British television industry clings to
archaic creative practices rather than adopting
the American model of teams of storyliners. ._ writers and producers drafting each episode. 1
producers who are themselves w‘riters making
the important decisions. and the programme '
creator having a say in the end product. It is the
only means by which exciting television like ;
ER. can be made.
I liked ER. a lot and I suspect it will be a bit. It will appeal to Channel 4‘s usual constituency of hip young adults who appreciate Hill Street and NYPD. Granny will stick to Casualty. U
ER. starts on Wednesday 1 February at 9pm on ;
Channel 4. A second series of C ardiac A rrest,
written by John Macure, is due to be screened in
the spring on BBC 1. Dr Macure is currently working on two other television projects in an
attempt to stave off a return to the dayjol). J
The List 27 Jan-9 Feb IWS 11