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.