restricted access 14. Splinters of ER
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14 Splinters of ER ER had a dif‹cult time making it to air. “Every network had passed on it, twice,” remembered John Wells, who was the series’ executive producer when it ‹nally did appear on NBC in 1994. The reason for the reluctance , he told New York Times writer Bill Carter in 2009, was that its creator, the writer and physician Michael Crichton, had ‹lled the script with frenetic action and insider lingo. “It had all these characters and medical dialogue, and they [that is, network executives] found it utterly impossible to follow.”1 As produced at Warner Brothers, though, the ‹rst episode pulsed with a mosaic of compelling characters and problems that drew people to it. Peter Roth, then president of Fox Television, saw promotional clips of ER, which he knew would be going head to head at 10 p.m. with his studio’s medical entry for CBS, Chicago Hope. “Up till then we’d been almost cocky [about Chicago Hope], but seeing that, I got terribly nervous. I thought, ‘I think we’re in trouble.’”2 Though not all newspaper critics of the time agreed, Roth was right. Chicago Hope managed to stay in prime time for six years, but it was ER that got the glory. It quickly climbed to the top of the ratings, reaching peak Nielsen viewership numbers of 47.8 million viewers in 1998. The series also garnered a record 122 prime-time Emmy Award nominations and was the longest-running doctor show in U.S. television history when it ran its ‹nal episode in 2009. Still, popularity and longevity only begin to suggest ER’s importance. Through its energetic televisual form and the diverse backgrounds 331 of its physicians the program suggested a new de‹nition of medical realism for television. Reviewers marveled at the camera ›ying along with the gurneys, close-ups of bleeding bodies, the quick scene cuts. The series also drew attention for re›ecting a new mosaic of American doctors —male and female; white, black, and South Asian; straight and gay; U.S. born and immigrant. Previous series had tiptoed toward these approaches , but ER brought them together in ways that suggested them as the new realities of U.S. medical care. Its precedent may have made it easier for Gideon’s Crossing, City of Angels, Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and other series of the next ‹fteen years to express ethnic, racial, and gender diversity. Some of the changes and continuities were less liberating from a social standpoint. ER and the series that followed continued the doctorshow formula’s tradition of depicting top-of-the-line health care mostly as hospital based and controlled by physicians. They continued to show medicine as dealing mainly with acute incidents, using generally hightech approaches, and pushing for unlimited resources in care. And in an era when patients in courts and on-line were demanding more control over health care decision making, prime-time doctors of the 1990s and 2000s did not relinquish it to their TV patients, even in the series centering on nurses that premiered in 2009, the year ER ended its primetime run. Yet in an ironic turn from the formula’s traditional portrayal of the physician preoccupied with a single patient in an episode, the programs typically showed physicians as prescribing care in relationships with patients that were far weaker than in the programs of previous decades. Corresponding with a new angst-ridden approach toward doctors’ personal situations, these weaker relationships with patients and the unprecedented presentation of bodily gore seem to be the major elements that the program creators used to introduce a sense of realism to the contemporary TV health care system without really exploring the system itself. Re›ecting the changing television landscape, programs with doctors as central ‹gures after 1994 came to include not only ‹ctional hospitalbased shows but also a raft of police procedurals with pathologists and several “reality” shows that depicted medical activities. Nevertheless, despite notable exceptions, similar patterns of depictions of doctors and medical care ran across the programs. The patterns presented an important —and somewhat troubling—agenda about what areas of medicine 332 | PLAYING DOCTOR are important, what patients should expect from doctors, and what doctors should expect from themselves. “Not Marcus Welby” Between the year St. Elsewhere expired from NBC’s prime-time schedule (1988) and the virtually simultaneous debut of ER and Chicago Hope about six years later only one prime-time television series took...


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