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20 Years of TV: How ‘ER’ Was the Last Great Drama in Which the Show Itself Was the Star

20 Years of TV: How 'ER' Was the Last Great Drama in Which the Show Itself Was the Star

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a series of five articles exploring the past 20 years of television and its effect on the current “Golden Age.” It’s presented in partnership with Sundance Channel and their new original series “Rectify.”

In 1994, television occupied a very different place in the cultural landscape. It was a mainstay of entertainment, but it didn’t get the kind of artistic consideration it does today. TV was regarded as inferior to film and an ad-driven enterprise — programming to pass the time between commercials.

The move away from these prejudices was not immediate, nor would it come down to an inciting event. We’ll look at some others in the next few days, but first let’s look at a series that premiered almost two decades ago this coming September: “ER.”

“ER” began as a screenplay by Michael Crichton, written before his peak fame as a novelist but after his time as a medical student, when he had a stint working in an emergency room. After working on the adaptation of his novel “Jurassic Park,” Crichton collaborated with director Steven Spielberg on bringing what would eventually become the “ER” pilot to the screen. Once the decision to make it a TV series was in place, Spielberg brought in Jim Wells from Amblin Entertainment to be the initial showrunner on “ER” as well as a co-executive producer with Crichton. The rest, to employ a cliché of the kind “ER” would distinguish itself by resisting, was history.

What set “ER” apart was quality. It was hardly the first TV drama to be set in a hospital; NBC initially worried it would suffer in comparison to the popular — and relatively recent — “St. Elsewhere.” Nor was it the first TV show to “feel like a movie” (the go-to description for shows that paid attention to the artistic use of camera moves, cuts, and production design).

But “ER” was really good. And it “felt like a movie.” And, for good measure, it boasted an outstanding cast of actors — including George Clooney, who went on to be perhaps his generation’s most beloved movie star.

Clooney’s departure, and eventually that of the entire original cast, points to the generational shift that has happened in the 19 years since the debut of “ER.” Long-running series used to function like long-running Broadway shows, a reflection of the shared history between early television and live theater, which was as much aesthetic as it was practical. A TV show, much like a stage show, was an entity greater than its component creative parts; actors could be replaced with great frequency, with new characters written in.

“ER” may be the last great TV drama of this model. Its principal cast turned over multiple times over the course of its run (which only just concluded in 2009, long after the changing of the guard it heralded in terms of raising the bar for television drama). It had several different showrunners over that time. And yet it remained, immutably, “ER.” This characteristic was already a historical artifact by the end of the ‘90s.

By the early 2000s, network dramas like “24” and later “Lost” would debut with little doubt that they would maintain their principal cast (or at least protagonist) for their entire run. The former’s real-time conceit (that each season would be a different day in the life) and the latter’s ever-expanding epic narrative, each requiring cast continuity, were in stark contrast with “ER,” whose ultimate protagonist was really the emergency room (and surrounding hospital) of the show’s titles, and whose structure, however many plot lines there may have been at any given time, was very much one self-contained episode after another. While this is a characteristic many network dramas still share, it nonetheless feels old-fashioned now, especially with the rise of cable.

It’s still a testament to the richness and extremely high quality of “ER” as cinematic entertainment that it is simultaneously the last great show of the old model, and the first of the new one. And while there was no way to know just how enduring the show would prove to be over time, in 1994 there was no more exciting and brilliantly-executed show on television than “ER.” Long may it reign.

Indiewire has partnered with Sundance Channel and their new original series “Rectify” from the producers of “Breaking Bad” (series premiere Monday April 22nd at 9pm.) This startling drama follows Daniel Holden, who is released after 19 years of complete isolation on death row. As he adapts to life outside, anger is reignited in the small town to which he returns. Daniel Holden may be free, but the battle for his life is far from over.

Learn more about “Rectify” here. http://www.sundancechannel.com/series/rectify

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