Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! I’m finally happy to announce a forgotten single season sitcom of the ’80s that’s strong enough from which to present some favorite episodes: E/R (1984-1985, CBS), which although not yet officially released on DVD, is readily available on sites like iOffer. Truthfully, I wouldn’t be surprised if the series, which was based off a local Chicago play, does eventually see a release, if only because of the starry cast. Elliott Gould headlines as Dr. Sheinfeld, an ENT who joins the hospital staff to pay alimony to his (second) ex-wife. His boss and potential love interest is Dr. Eve Sheridan, the head of the ER, played by Mary McDonnell, who replaced Marcia Strassman after the pilot. Other cast members include Conchata Ferrell as Thor, the ER’s head nurse, Lynne Moody as Nurse Julie, Corinne Bohrer as Nurse Cory, and two cast members from the original stage play, Shuko Akune, as Maria, the ER’s receptionist, and Bruce A. Young as Fred, the local cop, who serves as Maria’s casual love interest. In the middle of the run, George Clooney joins the main cast as Thor’s nephew, who takes a job as an ER technician (and much has been made of the fact that Clooney starred in two shows called ER), and a young Jason Alexander, who comes aboard as a smarmy hospital administrator. For those who presumed Scrubs was the only medi-com, think again!
The show was produced by Norman Lear’s Embassy Television; Bernie Orenstein and Saul Turteltaub (both of whom you may remember from The New Dick Van Dyke Show and the later seasons of Sanford And Son) served as head writers, while Peter Bonerz, Jerry of The Bob Newhart Show, was the resident director. 22 half-hour episodes aired during the 1984-1985 season to a warm (although not piping hot) critical response, but a small audience, as most viewers at the time were tuning in to NBC’s The A-Team. E/R wasn’t immediately cancelled at the end of the season, which concluded in February, but the show was formally cancelled when it was not put on the next fall’s schedule. E/R was destined to remain a single season series — one that, for a select few anyway, remained a brief but memorable TV experience.
Screening all 22 episodes is a fascinating experience because despite the show’s brief life, there are several distinct periods that merit individual commentary. The one-hour pilot, which aims, of course, to establish the setting and the characters (although, as noted above, with Strassman in McDonnell’s role) goes on interminably without boldly daring to be either satisfying or dissatisfying. The only element worth noting is the guest appearance of Sherman Hemsley as George Jefferson (who was in his last TV season) as Nurse Julie’s uncle. It’s a shameless ploy to bring early viewers into the show and it stinks of desperation. Fortunately, things improve when we get a real leading lady in the form of McDonnell and she quickly establishes a repartee with Gould, who, from the beginning, is angled as the show’s star. The first month of episodes after the pilot directly embody the genre-bending trend that we discussed with both Frank’s Place and Moonlighting. But, in this case, it’s different. Not only does the hospital setting require more dramatic moments, but the show is based on a theatrical work, which didn’t have to firmly define itself into a locked category. Furthermore, this is Lear’s company, and as all TV scholars know, the exploration of harder subjects through laughter is his modus operandi.
In this regard, these few early post-pilot episodes feel most like a ’70s sitcom: ensemble focused, tonally gritty, and with laughs seldom at the expense of a moment that deserves seriousness. But the balance — something that we’ve often discussed here as being incredibly important for shows of this ilk — is not working. Where are the laughs? Where are the laughs? Furthermore, it’s clear, during this brief era in which most viewers are likely going to make up their minds whether to continue watching the series or tune out for good, that not all members of the cast are created equal. In other words, some characters can be relied upon more often for laughs (like Gould and Ferrell) or genuine moments (McDonnell), while others, particularly Moody and Bohrer, the latter being the show’s most underdeveloped and unnecessary presence, seem to just exist without contributing in a major way. In watching these episodes, it becomes obvious that unless the show quickly figures out for itself what’s working and what’s not working, finding quality is going to be an uphill battle for the audience.
But then the show surprises by finding a way to balance the stories it wants to tell with solid laughs, and fleshing out each member of the cast so that, even though some are going to be more rewarding than others, they at least are working within the context of the show. (Bohrer still drags, but mostly because the show forces her into a season-long story where she has an unrequited schoolgirl crush on Gould.) But this era, which includes the latter half of the initial 13-episode order, is benefited from sharper writing that begins crystalizing some of the relationships — among the most important is the evident chemistry that exists between Gould and McDonnell. Is a Sam-Diane-ish romance in our future? It seems like a good chance and a good idea, and the possibilities engendered by this dynamic, along with the interplay springing up between most of the other characters, looks exciting and surprisingly limitless.
And then some bad things happen. First, the show stops becoming a ’70s show and becomes of the ’80s. Let me clarify by noting that 1984-85, the year that saw the premiere of The Cosby Show, is the first TV season — for sitcoms, anyway; dramas are a different story — in which the decade establishes for itself an identity completely separate from the ’70s. While the sitcoms of the early ’80s are stuck in an odd limbo (like the ’70s, they’re less cheery, but they’re still not nearly as cynical), the 1984-85 season finds fully formed shows that are proud to be a part of the new culture of the ’80s. What does this mean for a sitcom that’s not yet great enough to form an identity all onto itself and therefore must appropriate a uniform of conformity? Schmaltz over humor. Melodrama over grit. Story over character. Secondly, the show feels like it needs to do something to capture the audience — and a move to Wednesdays in November didn’t help. The solution? Bring on a young hunk: George Clooney.
Clooney is introduced in the 14th episode and appears in all but one of the back nine scripts. While he helps make the show a novelty by today’s standards, his presence, more than anything else, serves as the catalyst that moves the show into the new decade. Like the ’80s, the character’s very existence on the show seems to favor image over substance. There are new stories brought about by his inclusion (and the increase in testosterone is itself not a bad idea), but he has no character. Furthermore, the ways the scripts use him make it plain that they don’t care whether or not he does have a character. His addition obviously didn’t save the show, but it did give the show an additional selling point (even before Clooney was a star), and most people who remember E/R look at Clooney as being an asset. I don’t. Yet that’s not all…
The next episode features the debut appearance of Gould’s teenage daughter, who becomes a recurring presence (only for three total appearances, thank goodness) and furthers E/R‘s descent into ’80s mediocrity, where empty emotion and sappy feel-good moments seem to trump anything that would be conducive to comedy. This two-episode wave of change becomes a three-episode wave of change with the 16th installment, the first to be broadcast in 1985, as Jason Alexander joins the cast as a lecherous hospital administrator who appears in each of the last seven episodes. He’s the show’s broadest addition to date, and although you’d anticipate this type of guy to bring the show into an unpleasant caricature-y place, he actually increases the show’s comedy quotient ten-fold. Therefore, I’m ultimately not going to complain about the introduction of his character because, even if I wasn’t a George Constanza fan (which I am), the show is in such desperate need of laughs by this point that I’ll allow it.
So now we’re in the last few episodes and although the show’s future at the time was unclear, the series attempts to settle into a place that will close out the season and leave new possibilities open. The writing goes back to harder patient stories (even giving Ferrell’s character a positive cancer diagnosis), but with the ’80s elements already corroding the moments of earned drama with needless preaching, the balance in tone that had only briefly been achieved is pushed farther off course than it had been prior. The only saving grace by now is that all of the characters, with the exception of Bohrer and Clooney (who simply needs to be fleshed out with substantive scripts), are clicking with one another and establishing a familiarity with us, the audience. Furthermore, after seeming to abandon the possibility of a romance between Gould and McDonnell, the show reintroduces the idea and actually closes out the last episode with the two of them going out for a drink together — leaving the door open for a romance that probably should have been explored more explicitly throughout the season; heck, it would have been better than the garbage that mostly comprised the second half of the year.
But, there were still several installments here that I want to single out as superior. As usual, my selections are listed below in airing order.
01) Episode 8: “Growing Pains” (Aired: 10/23/84)
Eve interviews candidates for a full-time spot that Howard hopes to get.
Written by Norman Barasch | Directed by Peter Bonerz
This is the last aired episode before an obvious hiatus, after which the series becomes much sharper and much funnier (for a short time anyway), but interestingly, this was the penultimate offering produced before the break, illustrating that even before completing this initial stretch of scripts, the show was beginning to tap into its sense of humor — without having to forsake the dramatic moments that the premise is designed to explore. Howard potentially leaving the series doesn’t make for a great story, but it does help build relationships and right now, that’s key.
02) Episode 11: “Sentimental Journey” (Aired: 11/14/84)
Howard dates someone much younger than he is, while Eve flirts with someone much older.
Written by Mark Masuoka | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Coming right in the middle of that string of higher quality episodes — the “sweet spot,” if you will — this is one of the more uniformly light of the series, as the story concerns itself most with the cast’s personal lives rather than the professional. The parallelism between Howard dating a youngster and Eve dating a geezer is easy, but the cohesion is appreciated, especially in light of some of the bad decisions that the series is soon to make. This is another offering chosen for being a good relationship builder — and not just for Howard and Eve.
03) Episode 12: “Mr. Fix-it” (Aired: 11/21/84)
On a busy night, Howard and Maria both get visits from their fathers.
Written by Saul Turteltaub & Bernie Orenstein | Directed by Peter Bonerz
A hectic episode, this offering may represent the apex of the show’s fleetingly achieved balance. There are serious moments and lofty ideas (like Maria meeting the father who abandoned her when she was a child) combined with a broad humor (the two men in pink tutus) that doesn’t undermine or feel disjointed from everything else. Also, the relationships have become better established at this point, so the show is free to start exploring and going deeper into who these characters are, and where they can go from here… should the show have longevity.
04) Episode 17: “Brotherly Love” (Aired: 01/16/85)
Howard worries about a romance between Eve and his brother.
Written by Sally Wade | Directed by Peter Bonerz
This is the only installment from the latter half of the run highlighted, and that’s for all the reasons discussed above. However, as noted, there are some reasons that the final string of episodes should be viewed. Clooney fans will love them, of course, but Alexander, who makes his second appearance here, is a boon to the series, and this episode in particular. Also, more than any other offering, this one is very focused on the possibility of Howard and Eve, as he gets jealous when his brother takes her home. (Shades of Sam and Diane, huh?)
Other notable episodes include: “My Way,” in which Howard is duped by a woman who’s really a man, “All’s Well That Ends,” in which Howard and Eve must extract an exploding bullet from a woman’s arm, “Only A Nurse,” in which Eve and Thor get into a power play, and “A Change In Policy,” the final possibility-filled finale in which Eve makes a decision.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!