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.