Saturday, September 23, 2006

Hospital vs. Hospital: ER, Grey's Anatomy premieres

The other day I had the privilege of watching the big season premieres of THE big US hospital dramas (I suppose House is a set in a hospital, but it's not really concerned with the goings-on in the place): old-school ER and new big thing Grey's Anatomy. Now, I must confess, I had never seen an episode of Grey's before in my life. Shocking, I know, especially considering I'll watch next to anything on TV.

After catching myself up with the basic story situation so I wouldn't be totally in the dark, I settled down and let the waves of voice-over angst, MOR indie ballads and hospital melodrama wash over me. I've been told that this episode was rushed and is not up to GA's usual standard, but I still thought it was just fine. I was heavily reminded of Ally McBeal, which I'm sure has been pointed out by critics smarter than I, but they both share that quirky, somewhat articulate but really completely ridiculous and (I'm sure) eventually rather infuriating quality. Like, Meredith wasn't getting on my nerves yet, but I could tell it wouldn't be long before she did.

From what I saw, Grey's Anatomy and ER are really apples and oranges. ER has always placed a lot of focus on the medical side of things, tossing the viewer into that steadicam, rapid-technical-dialogue thing it does so well, letting its characters interact between caseloads. On the other hand, the medical side of Grey's seemed almost lazily absurd--the bubonic plague plot of Thursday's episode was kinda lame and tacked on, considering the pure drama that can be milked out of quarantine situations. I also refused to buy that tough-as-nails Dr. Bailey would simply watch what'shisname from The Practice hyperventilate to death (did he die? I wasn't actually clear on that) because some faceless security guard wouldn't let her through the door--surely there are procedures for treating quarantined patients? And is it true that there was a PROM in the hospital last season?

Anyway, I can forgive all that! The law side of Ally McBeal was always just as dumb, and who cares about all that when you have such fine RELATIONSHIP MELODRAMA! Right? Well, maybe. I'm not sure how many wistful gazes set to endless music montages I'll be able to tolerate, but there was a healthy amount of humor (even concerning crazy Izzie's situation) in this episode and the actors are well-settled into their characters, as romantically stricken as they all seem to be. There's a definite zeitgeist-y grab here, and I could feel myself getting reluctantly hooked even though I was aware how substandard the episode really was. Ain't that just the way, right? 26 million viewers can't be wrong!

I've been an ER fan since I was a wee lad. It's probably the first hour-long drama I ever followed to a serious extent. Which is a good indication of how OLD the damn show is. I'll be the first (and definitely not the last) to admit that ER has gotten extremely stale: none of the original great characters have survived and the writers can usually only churn out about 5-6 above-par, vaugely original stories per year. The season 13 premiere 'Bloodline' summed up perfectly why the show is such a shadow of its former self but still eminently watchable.

Above all, the ensemble is ER's real strength. Parminder Nagra is a breakout star that'll probably never happen, Goran Visnijc, Maura Tierney and Laura Innes are reliable pros, Mekhi Phifer has a finely-tuned sardonic charm and Linda Cardellini was Lindsay Weir on frickin' Freaks & Geeks! Unfortunately, this fine cast are forever burdened with dark plotlines and unnecessary angst (the worst offender definitely being Tierney's Abby Lockhart, who is among other things a recovering alcholic, a victim of domestic abuse, a child of a bi-polar family and, after Thursday's ep, lacking a uterus). The writers, having years ago lost grip on any sense of organic storytelling, stick mostly to filler hospital stuff punctuated with the occasional horrific, epic tragedies and action-packed unreality, with a big guest star thrown in for good measure once in a while.

'Bloodline' continued right on from last year's hospital kidnap scenario and managed to cram in a car chase, a rape, life-and-death scenarios for two major characters, a hysterectomy, a crying/bathroom trashing scene and three murders in cold blood. I won't deny it was gripping stuff, and it certainly looks like I'll be sticking with the show for the foreseeable future (it's renewed until what, like, the year 3001?). But I was also mourning the ER I used to love (I'd probably say the last excellent season of the show was around season six), which didn't rely on such epic nonsense to keep its viewers hooked--and it used to have a lot more viewers, too! I simply can't empathise with these characters anymore, they've been twisted around so many times that I've totally lost sight of their internal narratives. Nevertheless! As I have always promised myself, I will continue watching until the writers are so short on plot ideas that a meteorite hits County General. After all, I'm sure there are some very nice guest stars lined up around the corner. Plus, with John Stamos joining the cast here and Bob Saget on How I Met Your Mother, we're not far from getting the majority of Full House's cast back on the air! Which is one of the seven signs of the apocalypse! Yay!

On the basis of these two episode, I've surmised that Grey's Anatomy is objectionable but very watchable because it's chatty and silly and totally over the top, wheras ER is objectionable but watchable because it's extravagant and flashy and totally over the top. So I'm a little sad to report that I'm sticking with both of them, which means I'll be watching four medical shows this year, and I'm sure that will inflame the hypochondriac in me. Oh well.


Todd VanDerWerff said...

Let's not forget that Jodie Sweetin is doing extensive work on PANTS OFF DANCE OFF.


This is actually the first season which ER could be cancelled at the end of in a good long while. It's probably good for them that they started so strong in the ratings.

David Sims said...

I thought they had a contract fulfilled through to like, 2009? Am I wrong? Is it just 2007?

Todd VanDerWerff said...

It signed a deal at the end of the 2004-05 season to stay on the air for another two years.

Hence, 2007.

David Sims said...

If they get canned, I hope they do a really big sendoff. I think they should RAISE DR. GREENE FROM THE DEAD.