Monday, February 20, 2006

Don't Buy into the Hype--They Can Still Bring the Heat

I know it's fashionable these days to slight the aged ER on NBC--it seems that nary a critic alive can name-check the show without (seemingly reflexingly) disparaging the fact that no one's yet pulled its plug. I've already laid out how I feel (here) about the show's current quality, but wanted to say a little about a recent stellar episode.

I only caught the episode, which ran a week or two ago, this weekend--the wife and I usually watch ER together, but the episode in question, the one with James Wood portraying a professor afflicted with ALS, was one she skipped, thinking (rightly) that it would be depressing.

On the surface, it seemed like another guest star Emmy-baiting episode (and it was)--kin to the Ray Liotta and Cynthia Nixon episodes from last year. ER has been doing this for a while now, bringing in name actors to play patients in stand-alone episodes that focus solely on the guest star patient. But to infer from those facts that all of these episodes are cookie-cutter in their sameness would be wrong. And this one stood out more than most.

What was most striking was the structure--we saw Woods' character, Nate, admitted to the hospital in the "present day," but throughout we got flashbacks that showed Nate being admitted to the hospital in years past--each visit marking another major degradation in his condition. So Woods got to play the present-day Nate, whose ALS has left him speechless and barely able to move his eyes or facial muscles, but he also got to play several other Nates--including sick ones, less sick ones, and a nearly completely healthy one. Much of the episode's power came from Woods' performance--he was brilliant in limning, in backwards time, the degradation of this man's life. And he, along with the writers, did a great job of making the man never a mere cliche. He wasn't the saintly soul trapped by his body, nor was he the heartless bastard we still admire despite ourselves--both routes they easily could have taken. Instead, he was both--a driven, egotistical, prickly, good, inspiring man.

But equal power came from a subplot in which we saw, gradually, that Abby knew the man, and, in fact, had him as a professor in medical school. What was truly impressive about the ep was that at the same time that in a mere 42 minutes it revealed to us a complete, heartbreaking, real character in Woods' Nate, it also taught us new things about Abby, a character we've been living with for many years now. Well-done, ER. Well done.

Until Whenever


Jaquandor said...

It was a decent episode (yeah, I saw it), and the high point was, of course, the complex relationship between Woods and the Ally Walker character. I didn't really find his "Richard Feynman-esque" teaching all that convincing, and while the episode was decent in itself, it still felt like "old hat" to me -- ER does one of these "Bring in a noted older guest star to play a person at the end of significant health problems" tales every year, and we've even seen the "one of the current docs cares for his/her mentor" thing before. So even when the show happens to be good (which I still maintain is very infrequently), it does so by recycling its old ideas.

Tosy And Cosh said...

I think you're setting the bar awfully high. For a single-setting show like ER that must revolve around the hopsital, the notion that after ten years they shouldn't be "recycling old ideas" is pretty limiting. It almost sounds like you are saying that *no* show ER-like show should go on past, say, six seasons or so, given the inevitable recycling that sets in. While we may have seen other mentors, and other famous-people-playing-terminally-ill-patients, I have never been moved by an episode of ER as much as I was moved by this episode. And to be able to say that 10+ seasons in is impressive, no matter how you slice, dice, or puree it.

Jaquandor said...

Sorry -- I just wasn't that moved, precisely because I've seen it all before. I'm not saying that the show can't repeat certain ideas, but for me, ER is now repeating only a small set of ideas with regularity. I'd bet money that next season at about this time, we'll see another star turn by some actor who normally doesn't do series TV playing a person suffering a major illness, for instance. I don't think I'm setting the bar that high -- I'm merely setting the bar as high as ER itself used to do. It's just not clearing the bar, which is why I don't bother to actively watch it. (I'm usually either blogging or reading while it's on.)

Roger Owen Green said...

I guess I AM saying that shows need to pull the plug before it's too late. M*A*S*H was a perfect example - some decent shows in the last three years, even a couple great onesbut they should have opulled thwe plug when Radar left, if not before.

Tosy And Cosh said...

Jaquandor--I'm sure you're right; we will see at least one "name actor plays a character with a major illness" ep next year. But after the brilliant Liotta and Woods eps, I'll be looking forward to it. ;)

Roger--I guess I disagree, in theory. I never watched MASH, but I think that it's all too easy to call for long-running shows to be cancelled just because they're not brilliant or new anymore. A series that was brilliant and is now just very good deserves to live on, in my opinion. Nothing wrong with very good.

Roger Owen Green said...

I guess so. It's just that M*A*S*H got so repetitive. BJ falls off the fidelity wagon in season 5 (or whatever), almost falls off again in season 9 (?). First time was was poignant, the second time boring, even though the latter featured Susan St. James.
I always liked the Dick van Dyke show - 5 years and leave 'em wanting more.
I compare it to Willie Mays, the BEST living player, batting .211 his final season - you hate to see someone of his caliber struggling so.
As for ER, I've pretty much given up on it, though I did see the C. Nixon episode.

But I've watched long-running shows: L&O until Orbach left, NYPD Blue for its entire run.