Category Archives: television

ER Ruined the ’90s

Through the miracle of cable television, the old TV series ER now shows up every day. I started watching it again after not having seen it since its original airing. And I have come to the conclusion that ER ruined the 1990s for me. I was a young mother, with three kids in grade school or starting grade school, prone to fret about them, and week after week, ER treated me and other viewers to a cavalcade of …gloom. No wonder I was a Nervous Nellie during that decade.

As I view the show now, I think of the fates of the major characters. Every single one faced some sort of catastrophe, with few or no rays of sunshine. Think about it:

Dr. Mark Greene: is mugged, faces malpractice suit, eventually dies of brain tumor

Dr. Peter Benton: talented surgeon whose son is diagnosed as deaf

Dr. Doug Ross: notorious womanizer, he finally settles into a relationship with the love of his life, nurse Carol Hathaway, and then he gets booted from his job just as he and Carol are on the right trajectory.

Nurse Hathaway: see above (oh, and in the pilot episode, she was a suicide attempt)

Dr. John Carter: Cousin suffers a massive drug overdose, and John himself is a stabbing victim when deranged patient kills…

Dr. Lucy Knight: Medical student Lucy Knight has a contentious relationship with Dr. Carter that seems to be improving until…deranged patient kills her and stabs him.

There’s more…most of these core characters left the series eventually to be replaced by others who had similar bad fates. Someone should post a warning in that hospital’s HR for job applicants: Only work here if you can accept personal heartache on a dizzying schedule.

ERTitleCardThese leads’ stories, of course, were interwoven with the many tales of characters on each episode, the ones who end up maimed, dead, infected, whatever. Yeah, there were bunches who were patched up just fine, but this ER was surely a circle in Dante’s Hell.

I know that ERs see a lot of bad stuff, and this was, after all, a drama. It was just relentless in its bad stuff. And, since it was also a top-notch drama — with consistent and well-acted characterizations, good plotting, riveting story lines — it stuck with you, as all good drama does, well beyond the last flicker of pixels on the screen.

That’s the problem — ER was so darned good at what it did that the shadows would stay with me long after I watched an episode. It ruined the 1990s for me, people!

Seriously, though, ER probably accurately portrayed the many awful challenges we face as humans. I can think of people in my circle of friends and acquaintances who’ve suffered horrible illnesses, terminal diagnoses, disability, tragedy. It’s part of life.

But also part of life is hope. Faith. Especially of the religious kind. Many of those I know who’ve suffered awful circumstances, some too heavy to contemplate bearing, have a grounding in religious faith. So their gloom is lightened by the brightness of promise, promise that the Lord is with them, that…the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the Lord.

That was never a part of ER. I don’t remember many, if any, visits by chaplains or rabbis to those in distress…even though most hospitals do ask patients to list such affiliations if they have them.

There was never much sense of true happiness either. Even when tormented characters found some measure of peace, they still …suffered.

ER was fantastic television drama and deserved all the awards and praise and viewership it received. But re-viewing it now makes me realize that sometimes I need to step away from good dramas like this if they’re unrelentingly dark.

I’ll do that…after I catch up on the next episode.

UPDATE: After watching more episodes I must amend this post. There is a storyline involving Dr. Luka Kovac and a bishop, his patient. The bishop is a saintly man, yet very human. He senses Luka is troubled, and for good reason. It turns out Luka lost his wife and children in a mortar attack in Croatia, and Luka feels immense guilt over this, over not being able to save them. As the bishop is dying, he tells Luka there’s not much time and he needs to hear Luka’s confession. That’s when we hear Luka’s story, his immense guilt and remorse for allowing his family to stay in unsafe circumstances, for not being able to save them, for making poor choices. The bishop is able to “absolve” him of this guilt. It was a lovely moment. Wish it had lasted longer, been explored more.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest novel, Fall from Grace, has been called “a novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.




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A Lesson from Project Runway

project runwayMost novelists are not best sellers. Most labor for years selling some books to publishers but not all,  making modest advances and little or no royalties. And when they see not-so-good books becoming popular, the authors of which  making tons of money and acting as if sheer talent and not a bit of good fortune got them to the pinnacle, well, it’s hard not to take up residence in the Bitter and Envious Bed-and-Breakfast. It’s awfully hard not to snark at those success stories, wondering why on earth someone who could barely string sentences together or structure a compelling story made it so big when your own works are just as good, if not better.

But this past week, if you’re a Project Runway fan, you had a look at how unattractive bitterness can be.  For those who don’t know, Project Runway is a show airing on Lifetime where amateur and semi-professional fashion designers compete for a chance to show a line of clothing at New York’s fashion week (along with some other prizes). This is its 13th season, and we’re down to just six designers.

One of the designers, Korina, has done some good work. She’s even won a challenge. This week, when she designed an outfit using every fabric and notion known to mankind from ancient times to the present, she ended up in the bottom with Char, a charming woman from Detroit, whose body of work so far has been inconsistent, good one week, appalling the next. In fact, Char was eliminated one week, but “saved” and returned to the show through a special dispensation gimmick the show started using a year ago.

Korina clearly didn’t think she should have to be considered even in the same league with Char. She snarked on the runway during the final judging, and she continued to snark while working on a new dress, an assignment given to Char and Korina so they could try to redeem themselves after their awful runway showings. Char won–she deserved it–with a sleek, floating blue dress. Korina lost–with a poorly constructed Mondrian-design sheath.

And when a weeping Korina went back to tell the other contestants she’d lost, she couldn’t resist jabbing at Char, mentioning how she’d been eliminated previously. (Translation: You were never as good as me, yet I had to compete against you, and I lost!)

Here’s a good write-up of the Korina Krack-Up.

But the sad truth of this episode is: Korina was right…to a degree. As mentioned, Char has been an inconsistent designer, with some really bad pieces coming down the runway at various times–bad in design and bad in construction. I remember one monstrosity in particular that appeared as if it had been sewn in fifteen minutes using fabric scraps…while she was blindfolded.

Nonetheless, Korina herself wasn’t brilliant. She, too, sent some real dogs down the runway — she designed a green evening dress that looked as if a beginning teen sewer had chosen the wrong fabric, the wrong color and the wrong Simplicity pattern for her first garment.

Korina was lucky, though, not to be eliminated earlier for some of her flops. She was lucky– just as Char was lucky to be brought back on the show after her elimination. They both have some skill. They both have some talent. They both have exercised poor judgement occasionally. And…they both experienced both good and bad luck.

Korina’s bad luck came this past week. I suspect Char’s will come soon enough.

Authors not in the best-selling ranks probably all have their Korina moments. (And if they’re smart, they keep them to themselves.) You look at author so-and-so selling big, and you think: Really? She made it with her book, but I’m struggling to find an audience or publisher for mine?

She got lucky. You didn’t — this time. There’s no point in dwelling on her good luck and your bad luck. Things can change. And, if you love what you’re doing, telling stories, you’ll keep doing it, no matter how unlucky or lucky you might be.

So, word — don’t be Korina. It’s my new motto.


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TGIW: Love the Lexus story, not the Lays one

by Libby Sternberg

I like to be entertained. So, even if you’re selling something, I’ll listen if your pitch is funny, compelling, artistic, worth spending 30 or 60 seconds on. That said, I get a bit annoyed at TV ads that are richly entertaining yet don’t make their product or service memorable in a good way.  It seems like such a waste of money. And since advertising costs get passed along to the consumer, I like to know that what I’m buying was produced at a company where smarts and quality go hand in hand.

I’m a sucker for the e-Trade baby ads and am particularly partial to this one, with its punch line, “That’s it, I’m running away. No, no, you can’t come!” Always makes me smile:

While this  is among my favorites lately, I have my share of abominables, ads that trigger a race to the mute or channel switcher buttons. One is the Liberty Mutual Insurance spots with their Paul Giamatti narration about the foibles of “humans.” Foibles such as cutting off tree branches that crush your neighbor’s car, or driving into your garage, forgetting you have bikes on top of the van, or…you get the picture. The message seems to be that if you’re kinda stupid, Liberty Mutual’s the insurer for you. Maybe they’re a good company. I don’t know. But I do know I don’t want to be paying for stupid. It’s sure to drive up rates, right?

Liberty Mutual seems to have gone through an identity crisis of sorts. Just a year or so ago they seemed to be touting “responsibility,” first with commercials showing good-hearted folks helping each other out in small ways, then with a series of grim spots centered around a family going through tough times, sort of a suburban Joads-meets-insurance-company-here-to-help narrative! Smart move to get away from those befuddling messages, but the latest effort often has both my husband and I shouting at the feckless humans making those dumb mistakes: “Stop, stop! Don’t cut off the tree limb without looking where it will fall, you bleepity-bleep.” Me and hubs–we’re always cracking each other up.

Another bad-messaging ad is the Lays potato chip one where a woman sits in a salon having a manicure and is so tempted by a Lays-chip-eating patron nearby that she snarfs down some chips, off-camera, leaving the oily residue on her just-polished nails. Why, I ask you, would a company want to remind you of the downside of their product–it’s messy and greasy.

Car ads in general perplex me. Maybe it’s a gal thing–I never remember the make of a car being advertised, just that it’s sleek and tough and taking you places. But this ad….well, it’s just so visually gorgeous that I like to watch it; it makes me want to write a story about its protagonists:

So, is this spot the beginning or the end of a story? If it’s the end: He’s a Scarlet Pimpernel-like character whom she first thought was a cad or weakling, and now it’s revealed he’s the dashing good guy, come to whisk her off to safety. If it’s the beginning of the story: He’s a Svengali-like villain taking away the Ice Princess while her Prince readies an army to rescue her just off stage. Works for me. What’s your story for these two mysterious characters?

That’s it for today’s TGIW–Thank God It’s Wednesday–post!  Feel free to tell me what TV ads you love or loathe in addition to any narratives that strike your fancy for that Lexus couple!

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. She doesn’t have enough money to place television ads, so buy her books and make her happy!


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