Sunday, March 22, 2009

in memoriam

So ER only has a few more episodes left before it goes to rest forever in television heaven, and I thought I would take a moment to wax nostalgic over this soon to be late, great show. Now this isn't one of those heart wrenching, soul eviscerating cancellations like Freaks and Geeks or Once and Again or Arrested Development (ouch-that one still hurts). I'm pretty sure ER is in its 29th season or something. It's gone through more cast changes than SNL. And honestly, I haven't watched this show with any kind of consistency since high school. Yet despite all these things, the fact that it's about to end makes me, well, a little wistful.

If you haven't already picked up on it, I'm a TV person. I love TV. I love all kinds of TV, from traditional laugh track sitcoms to pitch black dramas to reality to well whatever the hell kind of zany, awesomely bonkers show Lost is. I love TV not just for the medium or the stories it tells, but the experience of it, the physical act of watching, the waiting all week for a new episode, the shows you watch with friends or family, the big season finales or premieres, and that first second when a show starts and a theme song kicks in and right in the privacy of your own home you're drawn into another world. It's always been this way. Interwoven with my childhood memories are images of Donna Martin trying to graduate, Kevin Arnold pining away for Winnie Cooper, Stephanie Tanner repeating "how rude" for the umpteenth time. I remember Friday nights from when I was five years old, sitting in the sun room of our old house with my brother and sister, allowed to stay up with them and watch Step by Step and Perfect Strangers. There are probably a thousand seconds and minutes from when I was that age that have long since faded into the recesses of my thoughts, but wild and crazy Cousin Balkie going around and around in that revolving elevator still stands out vibrantly in my mind. I could not tell you what I did on my eighth birthday, but I can tell you that around that time Dylan and Kelly were having a torrid affair while Brenda was away in Paris in the fictional world of Beverly Hills 90210. I remember watching Friends when I was far too young to understand half of it, and I remember my outrage when for a couple of years my mom tried to ban it from our house (the result of some newspaper article she read about how morally loose the show was-you know the kind of article, the ones that sprung up from time to time about certain toys or videogames or movies and inevitably resulted in a mass parent movement outlawing said object and mass mutinies amongst the oppressed children).

I remember when the WB suddenly appeared on the television landscape and changed my life and the lives of so many other preteens forever, because finally we had angst and teenagers (or at least twenty something actors playing teenagers) to look up to. Suddenly we had shows that were nothing short of cool, and yes, like Friends, the WB was supposedly a network of loose values, the hussie of network television, but didn't that make it all the better? Wasn't part of the appeal the fact that we would never in a million years watch these shows with our parents anywhere near the room and would watch them with the volume low and have to wait until school the next day to discuss all of the agonizing drama that went on in Sunnydale or Capeside. I remember nights when dinner was late and having to beg my mother to let me bring my dinner in to the TV room so that I would not miss a second of Dawson's Creek. I wanted to be Joey Potter. I thought Pacey was just the dreamiest (he still is). And of course, like all misguided preteens I thought that was exactly how high school would one day be, full of attractive people with clear skin and glamorous problems and of course in high school I would find my soul mate and have an epic romance and somehow never actually be in a classroom or do homework, because again, Dawson's Creek and Buffy were pretty much exactly how high school would be (naturally minus the vampires).

To summarize, television, from an early age, has been a part of my life, but the first television show, years before all of those WB strumpets (which really in retrospect they were, my poor parents had no idea what to do with their third child and were most likely exhausted by then and so they let me run rampant and watch scandalous things and even though Dawson and co. are nowhere near the likes of Serena Van derWoodsen and Blair Waldorf, they were still hardly ideal role models for a thirteen year old, and yes I am now a stuffy old person who blushes at the thought of morally questionable television characters and will probably doom my own children one day to being the only kids in school who don't know what happened on last night's episode of such and such). Okay I digress. What I was going to say was that the first television show that was really event television for me, the kind of show that I waited all week for and talked about excitedly the next day with anyone who would listen, was ER. Now for those of you not schooled in television history, ER was the Grey's Anatomy of it's day. No scratch that, because ER in its prime would leave Greys in its prime in its dust. It was the show that everyone watched. It was where you would be on Thursdays at 10pm. To put it in perspective I was reading a retrospective in the NYTimes today about the show which said that at its peak it got 40 million viewers and that even the most popular shows today rarely reach 20 million.

When ER started there was no Itunes. There was no DVR or Hulu. You couldn't watch a show on your computer because you probably didn't have a computer, and if you did it took about ten minutes to load a page, and even then the second someone in your house picked up the land-line your connection died and you had to sit through that whole tedious beeping and dialing routine to get back online. Back then, you sat yourself down in a damn chair, turned on a real live television and watched. And if you missed it you couldn't just wait for the DVDs to come out because it was a VHS world and who would ever think people would one day line their shelves with entire seasons of old television shows. When you watched TV then, you really watched it. And looking back now, I get downright sentimental. Because the truth is, that kind of experience is sort of extinct now. And I've adapted. I watch half of my television online, but no matter how good the picture is and how nice it is not to have commercials, when you really think about it, nothing can really match the old, traditional way of watching TV, when you actually watched it on a TV.

Maybe that's what makes me sad about the end of ER, despite the fact that I honestly wasn't sure it was even still on the air until a few weeks ago. It hasn't been a part of my life for a while, but when it was a part of my life, it was appointment television in a way no show today, except for possibly American Idol (because of the sheer fact that it's live) is. I was a pretty little kid when it started but I remember all of those early episodes. I remember being allowed to stay up late on Thursdays to watch, waiting in the dark in my pajamas for it to start and for that theme music to kick in. And from that first second I was hooked, caught up in the lives of doctors and nurses at County General. I rooted for poor, awkward Dr. Carter who hero worshiped Dr. Benton despite the fact that Dr. Benton showed him nothing but annoyance or disdain (kind of a dramatic precursor to JD on Scrubs). I of course, even from an early age, recognized the absolute god on Earth that is George Clooney whose Doug Ross was charming and dashing but who also capital C cared (Dr. McDreamy is in the same vein but even the thoroughly charming Patrick Dempsey can't hold a candle to Dr. Ross). Come to think of it, how many other shows have been influenced by ER, how many other dramas with interwoven storylines and realistic tones can attribute their presence to the drama that was the centerpiece of primetime television in the mid to late nineties. And there were just these episodes that everyone watched and talked about. They were events. I bet you remember the episode when Dr. Ross saved the kid from drowning in that sewer pipe, and all of the promos had the shot of him in his wet tuxedo, standing under the spotlight of a helicopter, the lifeless kid in his arms. Or the heart breaking episode when the apparently normal and healthy couple comes in to have a baby with Dr. Green and things go horribly wrong horribly fast and the mom ends up dying and everyone just cries and cries and cries. What about when Nurse Carol was taken hostage (by Ewan McGregor incidentally)?

And if you don't remember, if you didn't watch, then I bet you at least remember the presence of the show, the way other people watched it and talked about it on Friday mornings. And it makes me a little sad to know that a show like this will probably never again exist. There will be huge shows that a ton of people watch and talk about and which get tons of buzz. But half the people who watch won't sit down in front of a TV with family or friends. Half the people will catch it a few days later online or the next night on their DVR or on the tiny screen of their Ipods or Iphones or I-whatevers (so, so silly). TV now is at the mercy of people's schedules and busy lives. It's a shapeless, boundary-less thing that exists when and where you want it. It's become efficient and fast and slick and high-tech. And in some ways it makes it easier for more people to watch more of the shows they love. I know it has for me. So then why can't I help but be a little sad? Why is it that I can't fully commit to the idea that television has changed for the better?

Maybe it's because I for one loved every second of my stone age TV days, back before it was literally forced out of the box. I loved having to wait for a summer rerun if I missed an episode. I loved checking the television part of the newspaper instead of just clicking on an onscreen guide. I loved racing through my homework so that I could watch a show free of distractions, knowing that a show was on at this time for this long. This wasn't all easy or super convenient, but it was just what you did. It was part of the whole experience, and back then it didn't seem to matter as much that everything be easy and convenient. When ER was still in its halcyon, Clooney days, TV was immovable. No one had yet figured out how to bend it to their will, to force it into new and progressively more disjointed shapes and pieces. It had a rigid kind of dignity. And all of this is terribly sentimental for a medium that is basically designed to showcase ads and that has seen the likes of a show like Rock of Love, but well, endings always make me sentimental. And this truly is an ending, not just for ER, but for an era. Tomorrow I'll probably watch an episode of a show online and then maybe pull out some TV on DVD seasons and slide seamlessly back into this new digital age. But for tonight, I'm going to salute ER and mourn the passing of not just a television show, but of the way we watched it.
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