The ensemble medical drama is serialized TV at its finest. It’s realistic. Patients are constantly passing through doctors’ offices and hospitals, and doctors are constantly building relationships with their peers, patients, nurses, pharmaceutical reps, trial lawyers, and receptionists. The story-line possibilities are not infinite, but the mechanism for introducing new characters and associated twists is seamless enough to sustain a show for a long time — longer than most “good” TV shows are able to last. M*A*S*H* lasted 11 seasons and it’s one of the most important shows in TV history. Grey’s Anatomy is in its 13th season, and General Hospital is in its 54th. New doctors, new cases, new deaths. It all makes for great TV. But one show was even better: ER ran for 331 excellent episodes over 15 seasons. It is the best medical show of all. Also, it is not available to watch right now. What the fuck?
Earlier in the century, this was not a problem. First of all, ER was a prime-time program on NBC from 1994 until 2009, and even at the end, about 10 million people were still tuning in weekly to see what John Stamos and Linda Cardellini were like as medical professionals. The show amazingly outlasted The West Wing and the departures of nearly every marquee character, because the thing about ER is: It’s the best. At its peak, the show was as compelling and complex as any of the cable dramas tossed into the prestige bucket. What made it so much better than basically every other medical show, and most other shows full stop, was that the situational drama was an additional layer on top of a character-driven show that was already textured. Mark, Carol, Doug, Susan, Peter, Carter, and their ilk were complex characters who happened to be doctors. The show was able to effectively discuss divorce, mental illness, drug abuse, AIDS, and pretty much every other horrible thing that can happen to people because it’s a human show first. It’s the strongest argument for the power of noncable TV, and there’s no reason that this show couldn’t still be on with a new cast.
But it’s not. And it’s really hard to find now, somehow! Until a few years ago, ER was available for daily consumption via syndication. Every day in the aughts offered the possibility that a new person would discover the wonder of Dr. Doug Ross and the Clooney Years (1994–99, Seasons 1–5) on a local broadcast channel. George inhabited the role with such ease that I often forget, then remember, then lament that the good doctor is not real. A painful truth (which was the true currency of the show). But we’ve moved past syndication — and ER hasn’t caught up. In a world where bona fide celebrities are increasingly rare, we should be able to turn on one of any streaming services and instantly queue up the episodes that made George Clooney a star. It’s an evolution we may never see again: from TV character actor to tequila salesman in front of our eyes. But if we want to watch the origin story, we’re stuck with supercuts set to Evanescence songs instead of the real thing.
Clooney is the greatest ER success story, but he is far from the only one. There are almost too many careers and cultural phenomena that intersected with ER and often received a boost, but here’s a brief accounting of some highlights: Kirsten Dunst (homeless Charlie), the revival of Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (soundtrack of Mark Greene’s death), pre-Obi-Wan Ewan McGregor (robber and hostage taker in a fantastic bottle episode before bottle episodes were a thing), Sally Field (Maura Tierney’s bipolar mother), Julianna Margulies’s curly hair (those Good Wife wigs were so distracting because of her lustrous locks on ER!), Don Henley’s “Taking You Home” (the song playing as Margulies’s Carol reunites with baby daddy Doug), a second life for Kellie Martin (the medical student), pre-Numbers David Krumholtz (the guy who stabbed Kellie Martin), William H. Macy (Chief of Surgery Dr. Morgenstern), three actors from Gilmore Girls (Alexis Bledel, a.k.a. Rory; Jared Padalecki, a.k.a. Dean; and Kathleen Wilhoite, a.k.a. Liz Danes), Alan Alda (Mark Greene’s mentor), Thandie Newton (John Carter’s wife), and Susan Sarandon (???). Every arc on this list is worth rewatching, over and over and over again. But we can’t.
If we can’t get new ER episodes (and while I don’t support a reboot, there’s no reason why the show can’t just pick back up), we should at least get all of the old ones. What would be better than waiting out winter with the crew at County General? Ideally, this TV project would begin on Christmas Eve, which happens to be the first night of Chanukah this year. Damn the licensing issues. This is the entirety of my holiday wish list, and I choose to believe it can be accomplished.