Some may object to discussing sitcoms* in comparisions to films, especially since we’re in an era where shows on HBO/Netflix appear to have overtaken or equalled the popularity of cinema as both mass entertainment and production quality. The list of shows which appear to both imitate and innovate cinematic style continues to evolve, the obvious ones being Thrones, Wire, Sopranoes, Walking Dead, Breaking Bad – these are just a few of my favourites which I feel have really pushed the envelope as to what a Television series could be.
*(‘sitcom’, situation comedy I’ve informed and not necessarily the same as a drama series)
However, after contemplating writing my own series, and just out of nostalgic curiousity, I’d decided to rewatch the first series of ER which I’d bought from the British Heart Foundation for exactly £2.
I’d actually forgotten how, for its day back in 1994, how original, innovative and iconic ER actually was, since the style has been so imitated by shows like CSI, that it’s become cliche. And yet I can remember watching the very first pilot episode when it was shown on channel 4, either in 94-95 when I was thirteen, and probably like everyone else who saw it, including one of its excecutive producer’s Steven Spielberg, was completely blown away. Perhaps it’s fair to say, along with X-files, Friends and Sienfield, these were the defining shows of the decade, each of which seemed to reinvent the formatt with which they were working. Funnily enough, it also happened to be one of Tarantino’s favourites at the time, and who would guest direct episode 24.
The opening scene of the pilot is a close-up of Anthony Edwards’ unattractive, scared and exhausted face blinking into the light as an angry nurse impatiently tells him that it’s 6 am and he has patients waiting. This is a motif that would be reused throughout the series, disorientated doctors waking up to another day of chaos. At thirteen this was something I’d felt could relate to. Interestly, most of the action and drama occurs within the claustrophic space of the ward, which makes sense for both practical and budget reasons and which most series utilise, seems unusual to me now after watching Breaking Bad, The Wire etc.
A few interesting I’d learned about the show from watching the dvd extras:
1. Michael Crighton (Jurassic Park, Westworld, Andromedia Strain, Coma) had written the 180 page ER script as a feature film in the 70s originally titled ‘EW’ (emergency ward), and was based on his experiences as a medical student, and probably inspired by Robert Altman’s film MASH and its spinff series.
2. Spielberg wanted to direct it as a feature film until Crighton mentioned he was writing a book about dinosaurs.
3. The show’s producers were worried it might fail since a rival network had been developing Chicago Hope, another med drama, before ER, but when the two shows aired at the same time ER took the most ratings.
4. The producers were worried that audiences would be turned off by the chaotic style, which Crighton insisted be as fast as possible, but which audiences responded to positively during the previews.
5. The producers were extremely worried about the blood and graphic scenes in the pilot.
6. The use of floating steadycam gave the show a feeling of realism and an almost documentary style, which although used before in NYPD, had not been used as effectively before or since.
7. George Clooney was the first actor to be cast, and the rest of cast were all first choice without any problems, showing no Tom Selleck/Harrison Ford style conflict of interest for the role. Except, following the success of the pilot, which had been screened the same time as the other hit show Friends, Clooney, Spielberg and the producers decided against allowing the Hathaway character to commit suicide and instead remained for the final until 2009.
A side note on ER, despite being arguably the best sitcom of that decade, it also launched the career of Clooney, who’s only other credit I think was Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, and would eventually have prolific film career after some false starts. I think his first feature was the infamous and somewhat derided Rodrigues/Tarantino cult horror From Dusk Till Dawn, before the studios enrolled him on a series duff ‘leading man’ parts, these being Michelle Phieffer’s love interest in One Fine Day and Nicole Kidman’s love interest in ThePeacemaker and awful Batman & Robin, before his lucked changed with Soderbergh and the Coens and he’d began directing his own films. Which possibly, along with Cruise and Gibson, makes him one of the luckiest and talented actors in Hollywood.