After a brief flirtation with the new Battlestar Galactica series, the missus and I have put aside the struggles of that ragtag fugitive fleet and we have begun watching a new show which has us totally enthralled. Well, I say a new show. I mean, of course, ER, season one, which was, technically, new in 1995 but, like love, death, ambition, fear, lust, prejudice, and pride, continually finds new ways to engage with whatever it is ticking inside us that makes us human.
I’ll admit to some trepidation as I swapped the discs out. It seemed, somehow, like a step back and I wondered if the magic would still be there. But then the machine whirred to life and the room filled with blue light and the familiar, urgent, percussive music that heralds the coming of great medical drama. There, on the menu screen, was Mark Greene, the Odysseus of the emergency room, looking pensively into our bed. And just like that, I felt we were back. The missus must’ve felt it too, for she spoke with characteristic clarity, though uncharacteristic diction:
“That’s more like it,” she said as the opening title faded away. “No more fucking robots. No more fucking space ships and ray guns. This shit is real.”
The vehemence surprised me. This little side trip we’d embarked upon, our little adventure in outer space, had been somewhat illicit, to be sure, but I thought we’d arrived at it mutually. The kids had given her the BSG DVDs for her birthday, it was only right to give them a look-see and, if we got a little sucked into that world for a bit, well, what was the harm? So to hear my lady-friend dismiss it with such unequivocal language was surprising, not least because I found myself in total agreement.
BSG is a serial drama, so every show begins with some conflict which must be resolved by show’s end. Conflict, action, setback, turn-about, tension, resolution, repeat. Of course, this format necessitates the “cliff-hanger” ending, which arrives with such clockwork precision that you can’t help but feel manipulated. Sure, there are little subplots they keep brewing to help disguise the metronomic regularity with which the drama otherwise unfolds, but at some level it is like watching a piston fire. Exhaust, intake, compression, expansion. “Wow, that was quite an explosion at the end there, but I feel the tension has essentially dissipated. Wait a sec, something’s going on here—do I smell gas? Wow, the pressure is really building ... whoa! Didn’t see that coming! Quite an explosion! Phew. Well now, that’s a welcome relief— But what’s this! …”
My key take-away here: Watching the same thing over and over and expecting to be surprised is the definition of inanity.
That’s just the limitation—some might say the appeal—of the genre, of course. BSG doesn’t rest there but goes ahead and invents whole new limitations of its own, like the “phantom” Cylon, in the shape of a sultry blonde, who can only be seen and heard by Dr. Gaius Baltar—Baltar even wonders, convincingly, if she might be all in his head. We’ve seen this before in Hamlet, if not even earlier in one of the old Greek series, but where Hamlet’s ghost took the classic form of a father, dispensing a list of to-dos to his son from beyond the grave, Baltar’s ghoul-friend argues with him, flatters him, gives him advice, withholds sexual favors and basically never gives him—or us—a moment’s peace.
In fact, I regret mentioning her. I regret bringing up a show that features someone named Gaius Baltar. In a previous entry, I wrote that the show had been recommended as a stark commentary on the darkness of our political reality but, after a season full of inept management; dangerous, if not incomprehensible decision-making; degrading physical torture; disregard for reality; and a relentless refusal to learn from mistakes, one has to ask, is this show commenting on the current administration or is it just borrowing plot lines?
In ER, when the pizza delivery driver crashes through the front doors in his car because he thinks he’s bleeding to death from a stab wound but in fact it’s only a little scratch, that’s all it is—a lame attempt at humor that blows over and is never mentioned again. A little girl comes in with congestive heart failure that turns out to be a cocaine overdose. Doug accuses the father. But it turns out it was the girl’s older sister who had the coke. Doug apologizes to the father and learns a valuable lesson about not judging people. Do we see the older sister go into rehab? Do we check in with her in the next episode? No. We never see them again. And that’s perfect.
A car accident. Father is dead on the scene. Mother comes in with severe trauma and dies on the table. The two kids are bruised but fine. When you realize these kids are suddenly on their own, it’s impossible not to feel something. Does Carol offer to adopt the kids? No. We never see them again. We wish them well, but that is not our concern here.
In this way, and in many others, ER is like life. It starts and stops. Sometimes it makes sense. Sometimes it doesn’t add up. People walk on stage and seem destined for a starring role and then, one day, we realize we haven’t seen them for a while. Or a character we could live without simply refuses to exit the stage. We don’t really know what’s next.
That’s not to say that bits of plot don’t carry over from week to week. They do, but generally on a much more human level. Carter tries to kiss Susan Lewis one week; he’s not still fretting about it next week, but it does quietly inform his future interactions with her. I guess it’s not so much a hard and fast difference in structure so much as a difference in scale. The cliffhanger isn’t about the survival of the human race; it’s “tune in next week to see if Mark Greene is still a basically decent but hapless dork just trying to figure things out.”
Now, I have my spies—time-travelers who have seen beyond season seven—who report that in the future ER succumbs to a taste for the big disaster scenario. If true, this saddens me, but I will wait and see how it plays out. For the moment, though, these rumors of a less innocent future only serve to highlight what a simple, almost homemade affair it’s been over the seven seasons I know.
Are there times when it might be useful to have a kind of ghostly deus ex machina sidle up to a character and chat with him about his insecurities and fears? Sure. But that’s not an option on this show, so if they need to show us a character’s hidden feelings, they rely on a little technique called acting. When you see Dr. Greene bite his lower lip and furrow his brow, you don’t need some over-sexed android on his shoulder to tell you he’s feeling the weight of the world.
In other words, I’m an ER man. My time in the desert has only confirmed that fact all the more. In less than one week, the eighth season will be released on DVD and I am ready—overprepared, really—for that event. In the meantime, though it’s an odd quest, I am returning to the old texts with renewed energy to see what they can teach me—to see what I’m willing to learn—about life on this planet.