There are many reasons some of your favorite TV critics can’t stop watching (and tweeting about) old episodes of ER on Hulu. For one thing, until January it was one of the biggest hits in TV history to never be available on a streaming platform. For another, this has been a pretty underwhelming year in TV so far, thanks to both quirks in the calendar (nobody wanted to compete against the Olympics, and everyone saves their Emmy contenders for late March/early April) and some high-profile shows that disappointed (HBO’s Here and Now), which made it easier to turn to an old favorite (whose quality I could rely on) rather than stressing about Peak TV FOMO.
Mainly, though, ER has proven to be an unexpected hybrid: a drama produced in a very old programming model that makes a perfect modern binge. There are 22 or more episodes to nearly every season and each hour is dominated by standalone procedural stories designed to satisfy viewers in the ’90s and ’00s who were watching one week at a time, yet the thing plays beautifully stacked one episode on top of the next and the next(*). When each one ends, it becomes very hard to not let the Hulu interface slide right into the one after, even though there are plenty of other things I should be watching or writing.
(*) Hopefully, some of the current makers of streaming dramas will take note and recognize that even intensely serialized shows benefit from telling stories confined to a single episode. The episodic stuff never feels like a drag, both because it’s well-crafted and exciting in its own right, and because the writers usually tie each case to some personal problem one of the regulars was experiencing.
Revisiting ER in this kind of concentrated burst — at this writing, I’m midway through season eight — has been a very different experience from watching it every Thursday for a decade and a half. Character arcs unfold much more rapidly, so the ones that were frustrating to sit through for months or even years on end — the many ordeals suffered by Mark Greene, or some of the more forgettable romances (like Carter hooking up with Susan Lewis — which, like the rest of Sherry Stringfield’s second stint on the show, was a much better idea in theory than practice) — can now roll by in a matter of days.
But it’s with the more successful ongoing stories where ER takes on a whole new depth via binge. One of the reasons the series holds up so well all these years later is because — particularly in the first six seasons, when it still had a preponderance of its original characters and original writers, producers, and directors — it did a remarkable job of tracking both the interior and exterior lives of its regulars over long periods of time. We follow everyone through professional triumphs and setbacks, through relationships that bust and ones that soar, and through each character slowly recognizing things about themselves that we could see early on, even when they couldn’t. It’s a workplace drama that mostly feels like a real workplace — give or take the extremely high number of mass casualties and tragedies visited upon its staff — and that moves very patiently through everyone’s lives in a way that makes the payoffs seem earned when they eventually arrive.
I’d forgotten, for instance, how long it took for the show’s royal couple, Doug Ross and Carol Hathaway, to start dating again after the start of the series (when they’d been broken up for some time). It doesn’t really get serious until the fourth season, but the show spends much of the first three years bringing each of them — and Doug particularly — to a place where it makes sense to try it again, and where it can feel more durable this time around(*).
(*) The binge also quickly sweeps you through that awkward season and a half period when George Clooney had left the show but Julianna Margulies hadn’t, even though Doug and Carol were in a good place at the moment, which led to weird (and very dated) plot ideas like Carol announcing that she’s going to send Doug a fax to tell him that she’s pregnant. And it all ends up okay, with one of the best-kept secrets in TV history.
Any character who stuck around for more than a few seasons got to enjoy a similarly measured progression, whether about relationships, work, or both. It’s been a pleasure on rewatch, for instance, to realize just how much I underrated Kerry Weaver — prickly, stubborn, and manipulative, but also right the vast majority of time she clashed with the more inherently sympathetic doctors (particularly on issues where ER was way ahead of its time, like medical privacy) — the first time around, and to see her management style evolve even as she undergoes enormous personal change (coming out of the closet, tracking down her birth mother).
But the greatest joy I’ve taken from revisiting the show has come from the two characters who were my favorites back in the day, particularly as they related to one another: Eriq La Salle as Peter Benton, and Noah Wyle as John Carter.
Of all the original characters, Carter’s evolution was the easiest to chart. He was our point of view character, the guy who learned how the hospital worked at the same rate we did. He started off as a fresh-faced kid, not even a doctor until the third season (and not working full-time in the emergency room until the fourth), growing up (and occasionally growing divisive facial hair) until he had become the most mature and sensible voice in that whole place. It’s the sort of professional coming-of-age story serialized television is so well-equipped to portray, done at a very high level.
Benton’s evolution was subtler, and in hindsight, more revolutionary. He starts off seeming like the prototypical arrogant young surgeon, and has the famous pilot episode’s most memorable and heroic moment: performing a solo surgery to repair a ruptured aneurysm when no veteran doctors are available, then celebrating with what would become a staple of the opening credits for the next eight seasons:
As a twentysomething eager to prove myself back then, Benton’s cockiness spoke to me, and made me root for him even when he could be a stubborn, overbearing jerk to Carter or anyone else. But he turns out — particularly on second viewing — to be so much more than the cliche. Benton has impossibly high standards he holds himself to, as well as the people he respects — which will in time, to the surprise of both men, include John Truman Carter. He is fanatical about diet, exercise, and improving his skills as a surgeon. He also becomes in time much better with bedside manner than you might remember: soft-spoken and empathetic with patients and their loved ones, and even pretty good after a while with the other doctors and nurses. He’s acutely aware of being a black man in a field that doesn’t have a lot of them, working in an urban trauma center where many of the patients look like him, but he’s far from solely defined by his skin color, and would be offended by the suggestion(*). He believes himself capable of becoming the best surgeon anyone has ever seen, and often enough — especially when it involved what would come to be his unofficial specialty: marathon surgeries for trauma victims other doctors dismiss as lost causes — he demonstrates the kind of skills that back up that attitude.
(*) The binge also makes the occasional continuity error more glaring. Benton frequently talks about his vegetarianism, but in a later episode, he’s excited that Weaver brought in some home-cooked chicken for the staff to enjoy. More importantly, in season three he and struggling intern Dennis Gant (Omar Epps, one of many future TV hospital show stars to wander through County General) argue about whether Benton is harder on Gant for being black, which leads to a discussion about how Benton didn’t check the box for African-American on his med school application, when a season seven episode has him dismayed to discover he only got accepted to County’s affiliated med school as an affirmative action candidate with a spotty resumé. Every show has flubs like this, though they’re harder to notice in the original run when the mistake comes years after the original information was conveyed.
But it’s where Benton comes up against the limits of his own talent, when he’s forced out of his comfort zone, that he becomes a truly special character. One of his best arcs comes in season three, when he does a rotation as a pediatric surgeon only because it’s the toughest specialty available. He demonstrates the usual technical genius, but he’s terrible with kids, and would-be mentor Abby Keaton (the late Glenne Headly, one in a long list of great Very Special Guest Doctors) has to gently tell him that he’s not up to this particular challenge. It’s a terrific storyline, where a gifted professional has to accept that failure came not from one crippling mistake (though he does nearly kill a child due to a mix of overconfidence and inexperience), but from being fundamentally unsuited to the task at hand.
Benton would — in the sort of personal/professional ironic juxtaposition ER enjoyed so much — have ample opportunity to work on relating to small children by the end of that season, when he and an ex-girlfriend became parents to son Reese, who was born very prematurely and later diagnosed as deaf. What’s amazing about the Peter/Reese scenes isn’t just the unexpected tenderness father quickly learns to show for son — La Salle had always given a physically precise performance, and has big, expressive hands, so any opportunity for him to play a scene where Benton signed to Reese brought out a whole new level of emotion from him — but the transformation Reese’s arrival has on his career. It’s an overly familiar, but usually effective, trope on workplace dramas for new moms to struggle with work/family balance, and much rarer for those stories to be told about dads, much less ones with reputations for being cold, obsessive careerists. But from the moment Reese arrives, Benton’s entire professional arc changes, and he’s almost always at peace with it. He leaves the regular surgical service to take a fellowship in the ER because it has a better schedule, even knowing it will ruin any hope of professional advancement under scornful chief of surgery Rocket Romano(*). His departure from the series involves an even greater commitment to the daddy track, when he leaves County for a less glamorous suburban job with sane hours in order to win a custody dispute with Reese’s stepfather. In his final episode as a regular character, he admits to girlfriend Cleo Finch(**) that he lived most of his life dreaming of external glory, when all he really wanted was under the roof of his home.
(*) Romano’s the poster boy for the show’s struggles in its mid-late run to deal with moral greyness. He was never meant to be a likable character — among other things, he was a bully, homophobe, and sexual harasser — but there was initially shading to the writing, and to the way Paul McCrane played him. Starting in season seven — around the same time that Dave Malucci, another jerk who initially had redeeming qualities, abruptly ceased to have them — Romano largely became a strawman villain, there to be wrong in arguments with other doctors, and eventually stalked and killed by a family of cruel and vengeful helicopters.
(**) Midway through his time on the show, Benton dated another surgeon, Alex Kingston’s Elizabeth Corday. Theirs was one of the liveliest and most chemistry-laden ER romances, but La Salle asked the producers to end it because he thought it sent a bad message that one of the most prominent black male characters on TV had failed relationships with two black women, then hit it off with a white woman. His point was utterly reasonable, but both characters suffered for the split: Corday getting sucked into Greene’s vortex of misery (and quickly losing most of her initial spark), Benton getting involved in a bland relationship with pediatrician Cleo.
Both Benton and Carter shone plenty as solo characters — which they mostly were after the end of season three, when Carter quit surgery to specialize in emergency medicine — but it was in their interplay that both truly came alive, and became the strongest relationship ER ever had. It wasn’t a romance, and it wasn’t even really a friendship, because the two didn’t socialize and would have been uncomfortable if they had. It was a straightforward mentor/protege combination, pairing two men with opposite but complementary temperaments — Benton the gruff genius, Carter the warm social butterfly — to bring each other to heights they couldn’t scale alone. During the pediatric surgery rotation, it’s Carter who’s great with the kids (and who has a brief fling with the older Abby Keaton). In season two, when Benton wants to latch onto an ambitious surgical study that could take his career to another level, it’s Carter’s flair for schmoozing that gets Benton the gig. (Then Peter blows the whole thing up because the surgeon in charge of the study is cooking the books to make it look more successful than it is — our man again choosing the highest standard over what’s most personally advantageous.)
During their three years working side by side, Benton rarely has a kind word for his student — even his encouragements have to say a lot with a little, like Benton simply telling Carter at the end of the first season that he’ll make a good doctor one day — but he’s also not a cruel or spiteful taskmaster. He sees the potential in young Carter and works him hard enough to realize it, and Carter in turn becomes determined to win the tough but mostly fair surgeon’s approval.
That Carter quits surgery at a time when Benton is preoccupied by Reese’s difficult birth is an unfortunate bit of narrative timing, since it means we only get Benton’s disapproving reaction to it after the fact. But splitting the two of them up professionally has the unexpected effect of making the relationship seem stronger. After three seasons in which they were paired in virtually every workplace scene — a closeness no other two characters in the run of the series can equal, given how frequently stories tended to mix and match the staffers — suddenly they were mostly apart, which made each time they interacted even briefly pregnant with meaning, and with the unspoken but very clear suggestion that they were still better together. The closest I’ve seen to it in the years since may be Peggy and Joan on Mad Men, who appeared only intermittently in one another’s orbit — in part because, like Carter and Benton, their personalities and professional interests were so at odds — in ways that made the audience root for them to become the kind of friends they never would, or could.
When Carter and Benton cross paths in later seasons, they now largely treat each other as equals — even though Carter, ever the well-mannered and deferential rich boy, still calls him “Dr. Benton” — and there’s a tangible weight to that mutual respect that comes from having seen Carter spend so much time chasing it as a med student and then an intern. He basically has to run away to get it (not that this is why he leaves surgery), but it’s clear in so many of their later interactions, and makes those brief and intermittent reunions hum and pop.
And if they never become friends, they do become family. When Carter gets stabbed by a schizophrenic patient in season six, Benton sprints to the trauma room to help him, inadvertently knocking people over as he goes — the ultimate control freak losing control when someone he cares about is in danger. As they prep him for surgery, talking candidly as peers about the approach and challenges of the procedure, Carter smiles ruefully and tells his old boss, “I’m glad it’s you.” And when pain from the attack gives Carter a drug problem, leading all his closest co-workers to gather for an intervention, it’s only Peter Benton who can get through to him — taking a punch to the face for his trouble, in a callback to a moment years earlier where he shoved Carter in the same spot under the L tracks — and convince him to go to rehab. (And when Carter has a brief slip the following season, it’s of course Benton whose disappointment he most fears.)
When Benton quits County, his final scene as a regular character isn’t with his son, his girlfriend, nor even one of the other surgeons with whom he most often shared the screen in his last few seasons. It is, of course, with Carter:
It’s a perfect goodbye — diminished slightly because the producers realized they still had La Salle under contract, and brought him back briefly two other times that season — for a number of reasons. First, it’s the right choice for farewell scene partners. Second, there’s the clear ache in Noah Wyle’s voice as Carter suggests he could come pick up Benton if his mentor ever changed his mind about working at County, just as there’s a quiet power in how La Salle plays Benton appreciating the gesture without ever betraying his own sentimental feelings. Really, though, it’s that final exchange:
“Hey, Peter,” Carter says, addressing Benton by his first name for either the first time ever, or the first time in so long it was easy to forget (even in a binge), “I’m a good doctor because of you.”
“No, you’re not,” Benton says, seeming to give into the sappiness of the moment by refusing to take credit for Carter’s success, before busting his chops one more time with, “but keep trying.”
As I’ve blitzed my way through the series, I’ve kept wondering when I would slow down. I hit Benton’s farewell a few days ago, and it was something of a chore to get there, because even at the faster Hulu pace, the show became heavier and more dependent on making the characters suffer to generate drama. (In the space of one episode, Dr. Greene deals with his baby daughter’s near-fatal ingestion of Ecstasy pills from his older daughter Rachel’s backpack, a potentially marriage-ending fight with Corday about what to do with Rachel, and the news that his brain cancer may have returned!) Benton’s gone now, Greene will soon follow, and while Carter has several seasons to go, the show is about to become more outlandish, more interested in melodrama than mundanity, while gradually replacing the compelling second-generation characters with the blander third-generation cast. To this point, I’ve watched nearly every episode, even the ones I disliked at the time to see if they had, like Kerry Weaver, gone up in my estimation. (The live episode, “Ambush,” worked better now, even though the experiment feels like more trouble than it was worth, while all of Susan Lewis’ theatrical monologues about her family in “Take These Broken Wings” were just as stilted as before.) Lately, though, it’s just been for Carter and Benton, either apart or in their rare moments together. With Benton gone, it’s going to become easier to cherrypick the good ones, and at some point I may just jump straight to the bounceback final season, which featured the return of Carter and cameos from a lot of earlier characters — including a late episode where Benton returns to save Carter’s life (again) by being a hardass with exacting standards (again).
I’ve watched, by this point, more than half of the series’ 331 episodes. That’s an absurd amount of any one show to consume over the course of a few months. But for a long time, it was just that great — and the other options just not as exciting, despite being new — that I couldn’t help myself from following it with the same eagerness that John Carter once raced to learn from Peter Benton, or that Benton himself used to prove himself to his own mentors. And by the time it wasn’t quite as good, there were still those guys whose stories kept me going, even when it wasn’t pleasant for either (Carter losing out on the chief resident job because of his addiction history, Benton having to take a demeaning and low-paying per diem job as punishment from Romano). With half of that duo gone until the very end of the series, and with the quality of 2018 TV finally picking up (welcome back, Atlanta, The Americans, Legion, et al!), my own time back at County General may be nearing an end.
But man, those two (and so many others) made it fun to come back for a while.