The cure for lame TV

A return to "St. Elsewhere" evokes a time before Dr. House and McDreamy and the "ER" gang. It's a world worth going back to ... stat.

Topics: Re-viewed, Television,

The cure for lame TV

Long before pill-popping medical maverick Dr. Gregory House and his Scooby troop of young diagnosticians burst onto the scene, Sherlock Holmes-ing their way through the world of strange and stranger medical conditions; before the gang at Seattle Grace and McDreamy and McSteamy and George admitted their first patients and before we were all forced to wonder if Dr. Izzie Stevens was ever going to emerge from her post-Denny funk; and even before the mayhem of County General Hospital, there was a little place called “St. Elsewhere.”

Cue the synthesizers. Fade the color in. And go.

True, the Writers Guild of America strike — which may be resolved Tuesday — may have us all wondering just how long we’ll be forced to watch a 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pound spandex-clad blonde named Hellga pummel the lights out of a 20-something gym bunny. But the lack of good hospital drama these past months may just give us the previously overlooked opportunity to go back and rediscover the hospital series that started it all.

For those of us who spent most of the 1980s with our view obstructed by large shoulder pads and teased hair, or on a playground, or, you know, not yet born, “St. Elsewhere,” which aired on NBC from 1982 to 1988, serves as the architectural underpinning for “ER,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House,” “Scrubs” and countless other medical shows. Set in the decrepit wards of St. Eligius Hospital in Boston’s inner city, the series follows a group of young medical residents struggling to cope with life and, more often, death, which was a strong departure from medical dramas that preceded it.

The 1950s and 1960s offered a host of M.D.-focused television shows — 1961′s “Ben Casey” or, later, “Marcus Welby, M.D.” These shows centered on infallible doctors, whose patients dropped to their knees with gratitude and awe. Like Richard Chamberlain as the young idealistic surgical intern and title character in “Dr. Kildare,” these characters were rarely challenged by moral or ethical dilemmas.

“St. Elsewhere’s” characters are unapologetically flawed and conflicted. The show weaves together elaborate webs of plot and subplot. The first season, the only one currently available on DVD, gives us episodes involving a sex change operation, the outbreak of a rare disease, a case of Munchausen syndrome, and a pregnant woman who threatens to open fire on whoever performed her husband’s vasectomy.

Later seasons delved even deeper, into issues of rape, gang violence, dysfunctional work/family relationships, racial tensions, suicide and drug problems. “St. Elsewhere” was one of the first TV shows to tackle the subject of AIDS — in Season 2 a local city councilman is diagnosed with the disease. Later in the series, Dr. Jack Morrison (played by a young David Morse, whose recent guest appearance on Fox’s “House” earned him an Emmy nod) is raped while volunteering at prison.

Where “ER” turns on gut-wrenching scenarios and a fast-paced environment and “Grey’s” sex lives play as prominent a role as the medical drama, “St. Elsewhere” struck a harmonic chord between beautifully orchestrated surgical procedures and the candid human side of the hospital’s staff. The show gave us a hospital of chaos and tragedy, where doctors don’t always do right and patients don’t always survive.

In its six-season run “St. Elsewhere” was nominated for 63 Emmy Awards, winning 13 awards. While the show never garnered huge ratings, peaking at 49th place on the yearly Nielsen report, a devoted audience provided the show with enough support to last its 137 episodes.

Yes, at times the show feels dated — even if you do ignore Dr. Wayne Fiscus’ (a Jheri-curled Howie Mandel) skinny ties or novice surgeon Dr. Victor Ehrlich’s (Ed Begley Jr.) thick-framed glasses and day-glo Hawaiian print shirts. Dialogue at times can feel overcharged and camera angles obtuse, lacking the subtle finesse of “St. Elsewhere’s” modern counterparts. See Season 1, Episode 2, “Bypass”: The camera pans to Dr. Craig’s loafers and up to his stern face. The doctor marches into the room of an overweight, middle-aged man and says, “Your father died of a heart attack when he was 42 … You’re walking a thin line, but I am going to save you. That’s right. [Exaggerated nod] Triple bypass.”

But while certain fashion statements, racial stereotypes and medical scenarios seem passé, the complex and overlapping plotlines, smart writing and character development render the series as compelling and relevant now as it was in its mid-’80s heyday, right down to Fiscus’ lunchtime discussion of why prepubescent girls are developing the bodies of Sophia Loren. (It’s the estrogen hormones in the fast-food hamburgers!)

Plus, let’s be honest, there are few things that can top a pre-blockbuster Denzel Washington playing an introspective Dr. Phillip Chandler who probes an amnesic patient. Well, maybe a young Tim Robbins as a bank bomber, dark lesions across his face, in a hospital gown with his right foot cuffed to a gurney, chain-smoking while telling nurse Helen Rosenthal (Christina Pickles) that the food stinks. Actually, maybe Christopher Guest as an ill-tempered hospital administrator in a three-piece suit.

So even though the 14th and possibly last season of “ER” is still on hold and we’re waiting to see what happens when Joshua Jackson finally makes his planned guest appearance this season on “Grey’s Anatomy,” the silver lining may just lie in the shows of our past. And while Fox 20th Century Entertainment representatives say they have yet to slate a DVD release for any of “St. Elsewhere’s” later seasons — meaning that we’ll all have to wait to revisit the “Snow Globe” series finale where it is revealed (20-year-old spoiler alert!) that the entire show was the fantasy of Dr. Westphall’s (Ed Flanders) autistic son, Tommy, Season 1 may just renew your faith in good television.

Erin Renzas is an editorial fellow at Salon.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>