The ’90s were a very different kind of golden age in television than the one we’re in now. The depth and breadth of quality wasn’t nearly as great as it is today, but the best shows (Seinfeld, NYPD Blue, Frasier, Friends) were not only among the best ever made, but were often the highest-rated of their era.
No show exemplified this brief but glorious convergence of quality and popularity more than ER, the NBC hospital drama that won Emmys and critical raves, and made huge stars out of George Clooney, Julianna Margulies, and others, all while dominating the ratings with numbers that would make the producers of today’s biggest hits weep with envy. It was such a big deal, instantly, that the very first thing Quentin Tarantino chose to direct after Pulp Fiction was an episode of this show. (Season one’s “Motherhood,” which unfortunately isn’t a highlight for either Tarantino or ER.)
But because ER hasn’t been available on a streaming platform, while its repeats have appeared only intermittently on cable over the years (Pop has the current rights, airing it on weekday afternoons), its place in the pop culture consciousness has unfortunately started to fade, particularly among viewers who either weren’t alive or old enough to watch it during its juggernaut Doug-and-Carol days.
Yesterday, though, Hulu added the entire series to its library, and you can go there now to watch any or all of the 331 episodes. It’s no longer the Holy Grail of streaming dramas (that title now falls to… Homicide, probably, though Ed is the least likely to ever get streamed, due to conflicts over who owns it), and now a new generation can finally see what the middle-aged folks have been gushing about for years.
There will be adjustments, of course. This is a Great Drama from an era when that concept was defined differently. It’s primarily a medical procedural with ongoing character arcs (though some patients and other work issues stick around for many episodes), just executed at an incredibly high level, particularly through the first six or seven seasons. There’s also just a metric ton of stuff to watch, even if you decide to bolt whenever your favorite original castmember does the same.
So if several hundred — or even a few dozen — hours of hospital drama feel like too big a commitment in the age of Peak TV, here’s an ER sampler for the newbies, featuring ten of the show’s best and/or most representative episodes. I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, especially since a few of these are memorable for things that were incredibly shocking to the audience back in the day, but it’s impossible to not reveal anything.
To Trauma 2, we go!
“24 Hours” (Season one, episode one)
ER‘s first episode aired on a Monday, ahead of a scheduled showdown with 1994’s other new Chicago hospital drama, Chicago Hope, which the CBS show was expected to win handily. Instead, this movie-length pilot was such a smash that Hope barely even put up a fight on Thursdays before CBS moved it. “24 Hours” sets the show’s chaotic tone immediately, following Anthony Edward’s chief resident Mark Greene through a long shift, while rapidly introducing the other players: Mark’s bad boy pediatrician pal Doug Ross (Clooney), friendly resident Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), brusque surgeon Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle), wise nurse Carol Hathaway (Margulies), and our POV character, wide-eyed med student John Carter (Noah Wyle). Michael Crichton’s long-shelved script and Rod Holcomb’s direction established an action movie aesthetic for what had been a pretty sedate genre, giving highlight moments to the whole cast — Susan giving a patient the diagnosis he doesn’t want to hear, Doug standing up for an abused child, Benton trying to play hero when more experienced surgeons aren’t available — in a way that makes clear why this was an instant smash.
“Blizzard” (Season one, episode 10)
One or two times a season, the series would do a mass casualty episode where the County General ER was overwhelmed with patients and the doctors had to come up with creative solutions to save as many as possible. This was the first, involving a highway pile-up during a snowstorm, and while the scale of these events would get bigger — leading to a self-parodying moment involving a helicopter stalking and killing a doctor seasons later — the recipe’s already addictive, particularly in a moment involving “Bob” (Małgorzata Gebel), an immigrant desk clerk who proves to be much more than she seems.
“Love’s Labor Lost” (Season one, episode 19)
ER‘s trademark was the way it quickened the pace of not only medical dramas, but TV dramas in general, but it could be plenty powerful when it moved at a more stately pace, as in arguably the show’s greatest episode, a slow-motion Murphy’s Law tragedy for a patient of Dr. Greene’s. It also features one of the earliest of many Before They Were Stars guest appearances, by Bradley Whitford as an expecting father.
“Hell and High Water” (Season two, episode seven)
If Clooney wasn’t already a superstar by the end of the first season (really, from the end of the “He’s a little kid!” scene in the pilot), he sure as heck was by the end of “Hell and High Water,” where Doug, at a professional crossroads, has to play hero when he stumbles upon a boy trapped in a storm drain during a torrential downpour. Corny but incredibly effective, thanks in large part to the steady charisma of the future Danny Ocean, “Hell and High Water” was oft-imitated, as later seasons would do at least one solo spotlight on a character saving live away from the ER (like Carol trapped in a convenience store robbery, trying to patch up a thief played by Ewan McGregor), but never close to duplicated.
“Night Shift” (Season three, episode 11)
Benton was always my favorite of the original group, even though — or maybe because (me being a cocky kid in my teens and 20s) — he was an arrogant ball-buster. The show sympathized with Peter but also never tried to sand down his fundamental abrasiveness, which can be particularly tough to watch here, in the climax of an arc guest-starring Omar Epps as surgical intern Dennis Gant, who can never live up to Benton’s intense, demanding standards. There’s a moment in during a trauma that’s among the darkest this show ever did.
“Exodus” (Season four, episode 15)
One of the fun things about the mass casualty episodes was seeing characters forced into unexpected roles. In this one, a chemical spill knocks out ER boss Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) almost immediately, and in the chaos that follows, it’s somehow John Carter taking the lead and making sure things turn out okay. There’s also a harrowing MacGyver-style subplot where Doug and Carol are trapped in an elevator with a little girl whose life-saving equipment got left behind in the lobby because no one anticipated a blackout during the short trip upstairs.
“Of Past Regret and Future Fear (Season four, episode 20)
Among the elements that distinguished ER from most of its predecessors: patients died with a fair amount of regularity, and both the living and the dead patients were usually anonymous bodies wheeled into the emergency room to be saved, or not. (Earlier medical shows often treated the patients on narrative par with their doctors.) From time to time, the show would go against the latter idea, but usually by leaning into the former, with a Very Special Guest Star coming to die at County General. The best of these involves Michael Rapaport as a man slowly dying of chemical burns who can’t get his estranged family to come see him off, despite Carol’s best efforts. You know exactly where it’s going, but it hits very hard along the way.
(Speaking of special guests, the series did a good job over the years bringing in big names to play doctors who ran afoul of the regulars, none better than Alan Alda in an arc from the start of season six, playing a legendary emergency specialist refusing to accept that he’s not the man, or doctor, he once was.)
“Be Still My Heart”/”All in the Family” (Season six, episodes 13 & 14)
I don’t want to say too much about this two-parter, save that it involves Carter and Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) trying to treat a mentally ill patient (David Krumholtz), and that the second half of it will leave you curled into a ball by the end of it. I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry, for recommending it.
“Orion in the Sky” (Season eight, episode 18)
If there was a fundamental flaw to the series, it was that it couldn’t shake its addiction to making its own doctors suffer in the name of drama. The ER staff had an absurdly high body count over 15 seasons, and Mark Greene in particular became the show’s equivalent of Job after a while. Still, this episode chronicling his final shift at County General — but not Anthony Edwards’ final episode on the series — is powerful because it dwells much less on the reason Mark is leaving than on what made him such a fixture in that place to begin with.
(“The Letter,” also involving Mark’s ultimate fate, is pretty spectacular, too, and I wish that had been the end of the story instead of the episode that followed it.)
“And in the End…” (Season 15, episode 22)
As the series churned over to a second-generation cast, and then a third, it became more predictable, but the craft was still strong enough that every time I checked back in after a long absence, my immediate reaction was, “Oh, right: this is why I loved it in the first place!” The feature-length series finale (also directed by Holcomb) is an understated beauty that works as both a tribute to the later characters and a love letter to the original gang, as a group of old favorites descends on Chicago to attend a charity event, while the child of an earlier character reports for their first day at County General. The whole thing’s nicely full-circle without ever pushing things too far, and it accomplishes something to which many finales aspire, but which few achieve: it makes you understand that this is the end of the story, and why, while also creating the impression that another episode could air a week later and it would work just fine.
So those are 10, but if you simply wanted to start at the beginning and keep going, you’d do well for a very long time. They don’t make ’em like this anymore, but at least now it’s easier to see what they did, and how.
For you other ER vets, what are some others you might recommend to newcomers to appreciate this long-absent classic?