Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle TV Eye

By Margaret Moser

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  It's heeeere! The 1997-98 fall television season is rolling across the screens nightly and don't we all know how it will be remembered: for ER's live-action season opener. It was a calculated gamble on NBC's part that paid off in huge ratings and non-stop promotion from local network affiliates (next week see Lee Nichols' "Media Clips" for more about Channel 36's participation). The results were that NBC had about 77 million viewers nationally over their three-hour prime-time Thursday slot, 60 million of which tuned in just to watch ER. That live ER episode became the fourth most-watched drama in the history of television; specifically it had a 28.5 national Nielsen rating and held a 45 percent audience share. It didn't quite match up to that "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas on CBS in 1980 (still the number one most-watched drama in television history) but it rendered CBS, ABC, and FOX as helpless as family in the waiting room of a hospital.

So how did it go? By all accounts, remarkably well. Of course, NBC had built-in safeguards for the show: a PBS crew was filming a documentary in the emergency room of Chicago's County General hospital. (Good thing the crew didn't show up at Chicago Hope.) This concept is almost as corny as one of those wake-up-and-it's-all-a-dream endings but because ER does maintain its drama quotient with good humor and warmth, it's easy to forgive the easy out.

(In ER's opening scene, Weezer and I noticed the baseball game between the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs -- naturally -- was being shown on the TV in the staff lounge. Next time a lounge scene came on, we flipped to WGN. Bingo! About a two-second delay! Houston went to the division with their win that night but... well... bombed out last week.)

Many of the scenes worked out exceptionally well -- it must have been genuinely a challenge to act with a crying infant on live television. The fight that erupted in the hall was largely improvised, and that gave it a very realistic feel. In another scene, a zealous cameraman followed Dr. Keri Weaver (Laura MacInnes) into an elevator, questioning her call to prioritize emergency treatment of a doctor (a returning William H. Macy) suffering cardiac arrest over another patient. The way MacInnes turned to the camera and chewed him out with Weaver's no-nonsense bite was impressive. Anthony Edwards as Dr. Mark Greene seemed to get the bulk of the lines and carried much of the show with anger stemming from his assault last season, while George Clooney's Dr. Doug Ross cocked his head a lot and looked really charming.

Sometimes, though, the best parts of a show like ER are not the stars. Sometimes it's simply the sum of the ensemble cast being greater than the whole, such as last year's episode in which the staff is notified of a pile-up on the interstate during a snowstorm. There was a moment in which the camera paused on this group of actors standing in the hall, prepped, waiting for the inevitable chaos to descend. And all they could do was wait. The looks on their faces made the silence audible and the moment unforgettable.

In this premiere episode of the fourth season of ER, it was not the stars that I will remember the most, it was the final scene that will stay with me. It was a woman talking for what may be the last time to her husband, who is probably paralyzed for life after being beaten for trying to break up a gang attack. Yes, they were two actors (whose names I never ascertained) on a scripted televison show, but the depth of emotion they were expressing in their roles was so deeply moving. The woman's expression reflected so much love and bravery in the face of the unknown, while the man lay rigid, gasping for breath, holding onto the final moments of verbal communication with the woman he loved, married, and had children with. Their lives were changing forever in those few moments; nothing was ever going to be easy for them.

It made me think of a young couple I knew, slammed by a drunk driver as they were driving back from New Orleans several years ago. They were returning to Austin the morning of New Year's Eve, and had just decided to get married. The driver died, the couple lived, but nothing will ever be the same for them. Not the slight bow in her leg nor the surgical scars criss-crossing her body; not his sight nor his ability to walk without assistance. Now that I think about it, maybe my tears at the end of ER were for my friends, whose own pain and tragedy was reflected on a two-dimensional television screen.

NBC also gets a pat on the back for getting the execrable Jenny McCarthy off MTV. I was not happy to see my favorite broadcast network try to make a star of this moronic non-celebrity, but it is extremely heartening to see that neither did many of the viewers of her new show Jenny. Didn't television learn anything from Suzanne Somers?? It certainly seems the TV audience did. They avoided the show in droves, making it the lowest rated in its timeslot.

Boffo ratings are what the networks want, of course, and NBC is riding high enough with ER that the 38 million viewers who tuned in for Seinfeld also set a record: the largest audience ever for one episode. CBS will be trying for some of that ratings brass ring with an upcoming Murphy Brown storyline in which she will be diagnosed with breast cancer and seek out various forms of treament, including smoking pot. Word from star Candice Bergen is that this is the final season for Brown. It seems to me that the bravest step would be not to have a classy, Mary Tyler Moore Show ending, but let the cancer take her. Many, many women survive breast cancer (my mother did); many don't. It's not likely to happen but it would be one of the most believable ways to both handle the situation and end the series, which ran out of steam a long time ago. And it would be boffo ratings.


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