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"ER" Needs Fresh Blood

by Liane Bonin
Entertainment Weekly

The lifesavers on NBC's ER (Thurs. 10 p.m.) are undergoing a medical emergency of their own.  With series staple Anthony Edwards (Dr. Mark Greene) preparing to vacate Cook County General later this season, the show is scrambling to find the right doc to don his scrubs even as other cast members make for the exit... or at least try to.  In a surprising move, producers recently flip-flopped on the farewell of longtimer Eriq La Salle (Dr. Peter Benton), deciding to bring the actor back for more episodes after airing his swan song Dec. 13.  They've also enlisted Mekhi Phifer ("O"), who'll scrub in beginning April 4.

But the upcoming changes (and reversals) are just the latest symptoms to plague ER.  Since hitting a ratings peak four years ago, the show's numbers have declined by 25 percent, and many fans feel the series has been malingering for months, emphasizing over-the-top drama instead of compelling storylines.  "Eight years is just a long time for a hospital show," says Jon Hein, creator of jumptheshark.com, a website that determines the point when hit TV shows begin losing steam.  "And ER has covered so many of the clichés you see on dying shows, such as Dr. Knight's murder and Dr. Weaver's lesbian plotline, I wouldn't be surprised to see [Love Boat star] Ted McGinley guest star on a very special episode soon."

The show certainly isn't flatlining for lack of histrionics.  In the last three seasons Dr. Greene alone has weathered his father's death, a marriage, a birth, a brain tumor, a petulant teenager, and most recently his infant daughter's accidental Ecstasy overdose.  It's a parade of pain that might better fit a well-coifed doc on General Hospital.  But that doesn't mean Edwards' departure will be a welcome one. "Since George Clooney and Julianna Margulies left, Anthony Edwards had really become the stable, sympathetic center of the show," says casting director Billy Hopkins (The Shipping News).  "And when he leaves, there isn't really anyone left who can fill those shoes."

Though the show hasn't suffered from its revolving door casting in the past, it may be less resilient this year.  The recent exits of Erik Palladino, Michael Michele, and the on-again-off-again La Salle have left the usually overcrowded ensemble short-handed, while those who remain have been either sidelined or saddled with unflattering storylines.  This season Alex Kingston's Dr. Corday was transformed from blushing bride to evil stepmother, while Ming-Na's Dr. Chen was reduced to a thorn in the side of Laura Innes' already prickly Dr. Weaver.  "Goran Visnjic [Dr. Luka Kovac] had potential to be the next Clooney, but now his character is just irritating," says Hopkins, citing the doctor's less-than-charming dalliance with a French thief (Julie Delpy) and his break-up with Nurse Lockhart (Maura Tierney).  "And why bring back Sherry Stringfield and barely use her?"

Hope for season nine may lie with one of the show's few remaining original players:  Noah Wyle and his once wide-eyed, now seasoned Dr. Carter.  But even though Wyle, who's nine years younger than Edwards, has proven himself as a mature romantic lead with current on-screen flame Stringfield, he may lack the gravitas to serve as the wise man of the hospital ward.  "You need someone like Alex Rieger on Taxi, who everyone took their problems to," says Hein.  "Unless Dr. Romano [Paul McCrane] has a head injury and becomes a nice guy, they really need to bring in someone new."

Though Dr. Greene will be tough to replace, his goodbye could open up some opportunities for the show.  With fans growing tired of the overwrought personal dramas of the hospital staff, writers could revisit the medical traumas that hooked audiences in the first place.  "ER fails to come anywhere near reality in terms of showing the types of bizarre, poignant and different cases that are seen in real ERs," says Dr. Kevin Pezzi, a former ER physician and author of True Emergency Room Stories.  "What we've seen on the show is stereotyped, and I can't believe they aren't touching on some of the other topics out there."

Pezzi recalls ER patients complaining of everything from bad perms to crack-induced sexual dysfunction.  Focusing on patients, he suggests, would allow the show to lose the incestuous storylines in which doctors take their pregnancies (Drs. Chen and Corday) and other maladies to Cook County.  "If anything, a real doctor steers clear of his local hospital, because you don't want your staff to know intimate things about you," he says.  Pezzi also suggests that dating on the job, an ER staple, not only limits the number of new characters for the show to explore but is also far from reality.  "Not only do you not want to talk shop all the time," he says, "but your interactions with the staff are so intense, you don't want to complicate things any further."

Okay, enough venting.  No matter what changes may come next season, ER will remain open (the top 10 show is contracted to run on NBC until 2004), and more power to it.  While the show has lost a beat, it remains one of TV's healthier specimens. "There's still nothing like it on the air," says media analyst Paul Schulman of Advanswers PHD.  "It's a fast moving, well-produced and well-written show that squeezes an hour and a half of drama into an hour, and you can't dismiss that."

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