Yesterday, we in the Slate culture department came clean: We wanted to say something intelligent about this week's ER finale, but none of us had seen an episode since the Clinton administration. So we invited Slate readers who have stuck with the show over its 15 seasons to tell us what's kept them hooked. What we got back was an outpouring of emotion worthy of the most heartrending ER episode—and it seems as if there were a good many of them.
Let's start by turning the analysis over to Stefan Schumacher of Wheeling, Ill., who submitted an eloquent defense of the long-running drama, and one that captures the mood of his peers:
Despite its bumps in the road as it replaced the original cast, ER has pumped out more quality—fine acting, innovative and groundbreaking production techniques for television, memorable episodes and layered characters—than just about any other show.
Not only has it retained strong viewership with basically zero national media attention, but it's done so by covering such topics as the genocide in Darfur (something else the national media hasn't bothered to cover), having an Indian woman (the absolutely splendid Parminder Nagra) as its female lead and scaling back to more realistic story lines while Grey's Anatomy is sticking time bombs in its patients' chests.
Through it all, though, the acting and characters stand out the most. Everyone who has ever played a major role on the show has lent his or her character an unflinching humanity. The doctors on ER save lives and they kill people by mistake. Then they learn to live with it. They drink too much and they sleep with the wrong people. They get hooked on pain killers and they get off pain killers, and they stop drinking, and they find a way to move on with their lives. They work tirelessly in a system that doesn't work. But they keep fighting, just like the show.
The majority of Stefan's fellow viewers agreed: The show exhausted the standard emergency-room plots in its first decade or so, but its three-dimensional characters kept viewers coming back. While a few readers felt the cast never quite matched the glory of the Clooney-Margulies-Wyle-La Salle-Edwards years (many seem to believe the show's golden era ended with the death of Edwards' Dr. Greene in Season 8), others offered passionate defenses of the actors who came to replace the originals. Several readers made a strong case for Goran Visnjic—"just as great looking as George Clooney," writes Connie Colvin of Queens, N.Y.—and Maura Tierney had a band of enthusiastic supporters as well. Even Uncle Jesse found an apologist: "Say what you want about John Stamos," writes Jamie Moulthrop of Newark, Del., "The guy is a good actor and, IMHO, has really burnished his credentials with this stint (yes, that is a completely serious statement)." Slate readers also tended to think that the infusion of fresh faces over the years was a strength, not a weakness, forcing the writers to imagine new character arcs and preventing the show from getting stale.
Occasionally, however, ER's writers seemed to forget that their actors, and their commitment to medical realism, were the show's greatest strengths. Thursday's finale will be ER's 332nd episode, but even if it had gone on for 332 more, it seems it never would have lived down Episode 209, in which the writers dispatched Dr. Robert Romano—who had already had a mishap with the business end of a helicopter blade—by dropping a chopper on him. ER's supporters frequently open their cases for the show by stipulating that while they ardently endorse the series, they will not defend the copter episode. "Romano getting killed by the helicopter was one of the most disrespectful, ham-handed ways I've ever seen a show treat a character," writes otherwise loyal fan Maura Carney, of St. Paul, Minn.
Some readers who wrote in confessed that they've continued to watch ER despite a creeping ambivalence about the show. "There are very few things in life I'll ever follow through with until absolute completion," writes James Brown of Birmingham, Ala., with admirable self-knowledge. "ER, in sickness and in health, will be one of them. I wear this badge of honor to the horror and amusement of my friends, and to the drunken surprise of strangers at parties. I've never been so proud and yet, so sad." Readers like James noticed the show was getting repetitive, or soapier, but couldn't quite quit it; they'd known each other too long.
One way to describe this reason for watching is simply to call it inertia: You watch ER every Thursday night because you watch ER every Thursday night. "Holy crap," writes Jessica Rovanpera of El Sobrante, Calif. "I've been watching this show more than half my life. This is increasingly distressing. I guess it's just a force of habit." A more romantic way of describing it would be to say that ER became part of viewers' lives. "I mark milestones in my marriage by ER," writes Michelle Van Der Karr of Evanston, Ill. "It started when my oldest child was a baby. My youngest was born the day George Clooney left. After the doctor was finally finished with my delivery, I looked up in time to see the end credits rolling (don't despair; I caught that episode in reruns that summer)."
Several younger Slate readers said their affection for the show stems from having grown up watching it. "I began watching ER as a kid interested in science and thinking of becoming a doctor," writes Eleanor Vernon of Houston. "I continued following it as a college student who was still interested in science but knew her sister, not she, would go into medicine. I still tune in as an attorney whose sister is an ER pediatrician, like Doug Ross. When I speak of her, that's how I describe her: 'This is my sister. She has the coolest job of anyone I know. She's an ER pediatrician, like George Clooney on ER.' "
Eleanor is onto something. Despite all the turnover in the cast, there has been one constant on ER: the ER. Nearly all the Slate readers who wrote in noted the electric energy of the emergency room, the natural drama of the stories that unfold there, and the heroic, but also just human, acts that occur there every day. The show brought viewers inside that world, titillating them with (for the time) groundbreaking gore but also offering them catharsis and the occasional gut-check. Many Slate readers noted that the show was expert at reminding the viewer who is in fine fettle just how lucky she is and how quickly a drunk driver or infectious disease could change her fortunes.
The most poignant account of how the show managed to capture the life-or-death stakes of the ER came from Kathryn Morse, of Weybridge, Vt., who gets the final word:
I still watch E.R. because it reminds me, week after week, in a visceral way, that every day, somewhere, other human beings face the sudden, unexpected, tragic loss of a beloved person—often in a chaotic Emergency Room. E.R. often (still) leaves me speechless and grateful that today, at least, it was not me in an E.R. somewhere, unbelieving and bereft. In August 1993 my 21-year old sister committed suicide in a Boston hospital. She overdosed on antidepressants, coded, and the doctors could not revive her. My parents, alone in a hospital corridor, had to make the decision to end life support. Thirteen months later I first watched E.R.—the pilot episode in which Carol Hathaway attempted suicide. I've done a fair amount of grieving in front of the T.V. since then. When the show doesn't trigger and release my own grief, it elicits compassion for others beginning the long journey through loss.