This week, the question that has surrounded NBC’s venerable medical drama ER for years will be put to rest. That question, of course, being “that show is still on?” Unbelievably (and probably unnecessarily) ER lasted 15 seasons, bursting on the scene in 1994, helping shape network TV drama in the process. I was a huge fan of the show when it debuted, and it remained one of my favourites for years to come. But, like many people who followed the show, I eventually dropped out. I gave up near the beginning of season twelve, deciding that a show that had none of the lead actors left from its first season (Noah Wyle left at the end of the eleventh season) no longer bore any resemblance to the show I once enjoyed. And, really, after a decade, I’d seen all I needed to see (although I did tune a couple weeks ago to see the return of Wyle, Eriq La Salle, Julianna Margulies, and that George Clooney guy).
So obviously this list is by no means definitive, although I’m fairly confident that few fans would rank episodes from the final four seasons amongst the show’s very best (even if they may have been pretty good). Moreover, I’m working completely from memory here, so it’s entirely possible that I’m missing some great episodes. Which is why this titled “10 Memorable Episodes of ER”, rather than “The Top 10 Episodes of ER”. I watched these episodes as they aired, some again on reruns, and have rewatched the first five seasons (the Clooney years) on DVD (I’ll probably keep buying and watching the series on DVD until I no longer enjoy it, which I suspect will be earlier than when I first stopped watching it). So my methodology is a little spotty, but, hey, if I remember an episode, it necessarily qualifies as “memorable” right?
Oh, and by “memorable”, I mean “memorably great”, not “Freefall” memorable (AKA “Romano v. Helicopter II: The Revengening”, AKA when the show jumped the shark). Because now that it’s over, let’s not remember all the reasons it faded into obscurity, and rather celebrate one of the truly great network dramas in the history of television.
The list, arranged chronologically…
1. “24 Hours (Pilot)” – Season 1, Episode 1, Airdate: September 19, 1994
For weeks leading up to the premiere, NBC had been touting their new medical drama as the next great TV show, and when the two-hour pilot finished airing, they had me convinced. It’s hard to relate 15 years later what a breath of fresh air the pilot was, since even in 1994, the concept of another medical drama was hardly groundbreaking (in fact, it wasn’t even the only medical drama to debut that year, as Chicago Hope also came out that year). Moreover, the things that ER brought to the table have since become part of the fabric of television, so it’s easy to take them for granted when looking back. But at the time, the show’s accelerated pace while attempting a certain level of medical realism was like nothing I’d seen before (interestingly, a show that was whip-fast in its day now seems a little slower paced in comparison to current shows). But while attention to detail was a signature of the pilot written by Michael Crichton, it wasn’t about the flashy medicine that dominates current medical dramas, or even later period seasons of ER itself. This wasn’t some pseudo-detective series about exotic diseases solved by cantankerous geniuses or unusual conditions that mirror the problems of the oversexed interns assigned to the case. This was an episode, and a series, about overworked, idealistic doctors that made viewers care about their struggles through the various personalities involved, not through flashy medicine.
With this episode, we’re introduced to the weary Nurse Carol Hathaway (Margulies), wide-eyed intern John Carter (Wyle), roguish pediatrician Doug Ross (Clooney), brash young surgeon Peter Benton (La Salle), embattled Dr. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), and saintly chief resident Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards). Each is given a moment to shine and ingratiate themselves to the audience, be it Benton’s celebratory fist pump after beginning an emergency surgery without supervision, or Ross’ “How dare you! He’s a little kid!” to an abusive mother. And just when we’ve decided that we’d like to spend an hour each week with these characters, in comes one of the series signature shocks as Hathaway is brought into the ER after an attempted suicide.
2. “Love’s Labor Lost” – Season 1, Episode 19, Airdate: March 9, 1995
Probably one of the top two most memorable episodes (see number four on this list for the other), “Love’s Labor Lost” marks the moment when the show upped the stakes. For 18 episodes Dr. Mark Greene was the assured, steady hand of the staff, who could seemingly do no wrong professionally (even as his personal life fell apart). Then a pregnant couple comes into the ER with a mom having seizure (husband played by West Wing star Bradley Whitford), and a busy OB unit forces Greene to deal with mom and baby in the ER. It all seemed like a typical ER episode, perhaps even a heart-warming one as Jodi and Sean O’Brien were a delightful couple that looked to be giving the staff one of those moments that make the hard times worth it. Then things start to go terribly wrong. Watching it the first time, it never occurred to me that it would end in tragedy, even as things started to go south. There might be some drama, maybe even a close call, but Mark would eventually pull this one out, right? Not only did he usually come through, but a network show wasn’t going to kill a pregnant lady, right? Then it did, and we learned to never take outcomes for granted on this show.
3. “Everything Old Is New Again” – Season 1, Episode 25, Airdate: May 18, 1995
I said in the first episode write-up that the appeal of ER wasn’t the medical drama so much as it was the characters and personalities that made the show. They were well-rounded, flawed characters to be sure, but all in all, they were people I enjoyed spending time with. In fact, more than anything else, what made me finally stop watching the show was that as the years went on, the series kept trying to equal the big dramatic heights of the classic period of the show, but didn’t have the natural chemistry and camaraderie of the original cast to make all the dramatic highs and lows more palatable. It’s that chemistry and camaraderie that makes the first season finale a memorable and cherished one for me. I can’t even remember any of the medical stuff from the episode, other than the fact that it was Carter’s last day as a first-year intern. Instead, this is the episode of Hathaway’s almost-marriage to Tag (Rick Rossovich), which to no one’s surprise, never made it all the way down the aisle. Tag was always set up as a foil to Doug Ross, so I don’t think many viewers actually believed he and Carol would go through with the wedding. But they handled it deftly by having Taglieri be the one to pull out at the last minute, preserving some of the character’s dignity in the process, while giving Carol and Doug a nice moment together that showed that while they had more than their share of problems in the past, there was obviously some good times as well. Then the series sends us off for the summer with a joyous celebration of the characters we had grown to love, as Carol’s invited guests join her in some silly dancing to reveal that everything would be alright with these characters, at least for a little while. When I think about how much I enjoyed the original cast of this show, this is how I choose to remember them.
4. “Hell and High Water” – Season 2, Episode 32, Airdate: November 9, 1995
This is the other most memorable episode of ER and the one that made George Clooney a full caps STAR. He was obviously already on his way, which is why the ensemble show turned over most of an episode to Doug Ross’ adventure outside of County General, but once the episode was finished, there was no doubt who the marquee player of the cast was. With his career in jeopardy and his personal life constantly sabatoged by his own worst impulses, Doug is out on a rainy night looking for the bottom of the barrel. But just as he’s about to fire up a joint, a young boy knocks on his window, frantically enlisting Doug’s help with his brother who is stuck in a flooding culvert. George Clooney action hero is born as he saves the kid from drowning, as TV helicopters record the daring rescue. It’s a great action episode, that’s balanced dramatically with Benton and Carter’s inability to save the life of another child in the ER.
5. “Ambush” – Season 4, Episode 70, Airdate: September 25, 1997
The famed live episode. It’s a mistake to write this one of as a gimmick, both because it’s a lot more than that and because gimmicks aren’t necessarily bad things. The series had already done 69 episodes by the time the fourth season began (which is just 16 episodes shy of the entire run of The Sopranos), so something like this can help keep the series fresh for both the audience and the cast. Looking back at it, the episode is impressive both from a technical standpoint, with all the ideas they put in to overcome any potential live errors (having it be a documentary-like episode, throwing in extras that could cover flubs, etc), but also how much business they cover from an ongoing storyline standpoint. I’d understand making a gimmick episode be simply about itself, then introduce more significant threads in the next episode, but they didn’t. Not only did they continue the emotional journey of Mark Greene post-beating, but it also introduced the character of Dr. Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston), brusquely informed Dr. Carter that he’d be repeating his internship, and set up the departure of Chief of Staff David Morgenstern (William H. Macy), all threads that would power the early part of this season.
6. “Exodus” – Season 4, Episode 84, Airdate: February 26, 1998
While it was the quiet character moments that made the show great, ER was still capable of excellent action episodes, with huge emergency episodes that take over the ER. This one began with the action taking place outside of County General, with Corday attending to a man trapped in a collapsing building on a paramedic ride-along. The action picked up when a benzene spill crippled the ER, causing Dr. Weaver (Laura Innes) to collapse, and leading to mass chaos as everyone tries to figure out what to do. Carter, repeating his intern year after switching his speciality to emergency medicine, steps into the leadership vacuum, calmly directing traffic while dealing with hazard control. Amongst the frantic action, Corday tries to save her patient, and Carol and Doug are trapped in an elevator with a little girl in critical condition. “Exodus” ranks amongst the best of all the adrenaline-filled disaster episodes, standing out as a key moment in the development of John Carter.
7. “Middle of Nowhere” – Season 5, Episode 107, Airdate: February 25, 1999
To change things up, the show would usually do at least one episode a season away from the hospital, putting a spotlight on a character or pair of characters. Earlier examples include season three’s Hathaway spotlight “The Long Way Around” and season four’s “Fathers and Sons”, which followed Ross and Greene’s daddy issues-fuelled road trip in California. I chose to go with season five’s Benton spotlight “Middle of Nowhere” both because I wanted to spread out the episodes on this list throughout several seasons, and because it stood out for its portrayal of Peter Benton. Benton travels to Mississippi to fill in for a local doctor to earn some extra money to help out with his son’s therapy, and finds things in the rural south much different than what he’s accustomed. What I love about this episode is how it shows the depth of Peter Benton that he usually keeps hidden behind his veneer of arrogance and stoicism. Being removed from the pressures of County General does wonders for him in this episode, as he overcomes his initial disdain for the slower pace and culture shock he encounters, presenting a happier, more relaxed Benton, even while dealing with the overt racism of his environment. Dude actually laughs and smiles in this one. I always liked Benton, with episodes like this being the reason why.
8. “Be Still My Heart” – Season 6, Episode 126, Airdate: February 10, 2000
The list moves from one of the warmest episodes to probably the most horrifying in series history. You could argue that the following episode, “All in the Family”, is the superior episode, dealing with the fallout from the end of this one, but it doesn’t get much more memorable than the moment when Carter is silently stabbed from behind by a psych case (played by David Krumholtz). When I think about Carter falling to the floor in pain, only to reveal that his med student Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) had already been stabbed, it still gives me a sick feeling. Everything prior to that moment was standard ER stuff, with plans for the Valentine’s party afoot, Carter ignoring Lucy’s difficulties with what seemed to be a routine patient, and Rocket Romano (Paul McCrane) performing surgery on his dog. Little did we know that they were setting us up for a moment that is still difficult for me to think about nine years later.
9. “Secrets and Lies” – Season 8, Episode 173, Airdate: March 7, 2002
After Carter, Lewis, Kovač (Goran Visnjic), Abby (Maura Tierney) and Gallant (Sharif Atkins) are busted going through a sex worker’s bag of tricks, they’re all forced to attend a sexual harassment course on the weekend. When their instructor is held up, the five are essentially forced to spend a Saturday in all day detention, with the four doctors and one nurse (Abby) becoming County General’s Breakfast Club. I loved how easily the Breakfast Club motif worked with these characters and this show, allowing us to see different aspects of each’s personality and the different tensions at play in the various relationships in the room. This was a transition period for the show, as Anthony Edwards was preparing to leave. I’ve always seen this episode as a way for the show to officially transfer the focus from the older members of the cast personified by Edwards to its younger cast personified by these five actors (with Noah Wyle serving as a fulcrum, as he was an original cast member, but generationally fit in with this group of performers). I also appreciate this episode because the sense of fun it managed amongst all the angsty relationship stuff (with Carter and Lewis’ burgeoning relationship falling apart just as it was beginning), mostly because it came just as the show started its long, slow, painful death march that was Edwards’ final episodes of ER.
10. “Kisangani” – Season 9, Episode 201, Airdate: May 15, 2003
I decided I had to have at least one post-Dr. Greene episode on this list, as I did continue to enjoy the show for at least a couple more seasons after his departure. Of those, the most memorable were the first couple Doctors Without Borders episodes in Africa. They were highly cinematic, with some of the strengths of earlier outside the ER spotlight episodes. I went with the first Africa episode “Kisangani”, the ninth season finale, over season ten’s “The Lost”, because I felt it the stronger of the two (although “The Lost” was memorable on its own, with viewers unsure whether or not Carter was returning to Africa to collect Kovač’s corpse). What I liked about “Kisangani” is that it finally put to end the rivalry between Carter and Kovač, which had been fun for awhile (notably in the episode above), but had mostly become tiresome at this point.