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.
These 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.