The long-running NBC series - which began in 1994 - is coming to an end this year, with a sequence of superb, heart-warming episodes that bring back some of the original, long-gone characters. My wife and I watched the show religiously until about five years ago, when 24, Lost, The Sopranos, and what I call the new golden age of television pulled us away. (Hey, I watch an enormous amount of television - but I have to leave a least a little time for writing....) 1994 was a long long time ago for popular culture - not only was there no blogging, the Web was about a year away from becoming a phenomenon.
This week, ER had a perfectly written, wonderfully acted show that brought back two of its all-time major characters - Dr. Doug Ross (played by George Clooney) and Dr. Peter Benton (played by Eriq La Salle).
Ross was Clooney's break-out role in the 1990s, and remains one of the best doctors ever on television. He was pediatrician who cared more about his patients than the hospital rules, and in that sense was a precursor of House. But Ross was the complete antithesis of House in the charm and way with people Ross easily had, and in the commitment Ross had to his patients (House is more committed to solving the medical puzzle).
Often when stars return to their television roles in special appearances, they smile or scowl and say a few words, and that's it. Ross actually had a wordless reappearance about nine years ago. But Ross had a major role in Thursday's episode, which required all of his empathy (it was also great to see Clooney acting with Susan Sarandon).
Peter Benton was a very different kind of doctor - a tough, brilliant surgeon in the Ben Casey tradition. As a black man who fought hard for everything he attained, Benton had little in common with John Carter (played by Noah Wylie), rich, white, and his fourth-year medical student. Benton drove Carter mercilessly, all ostensibly in the name of giving Carter a good education.
Benton was back this week to help with Carter's kidney transplant (that is, the kidney that Carter needed as a patient). Eriq La Salle has aged a little, and he invested Benton with that mellowness which worked just right for the character. Benton is still tough, but his humanity, and his concern for Carter, are finally, after all of these years, out up front. It was gratifying to see.
There are a few more episodes of ER coming up, with more old friends returning. This week's episode convinced me completely that, after the series goes off the air, Ross and Benton and all of those great doctors and nurses will continue their daily struggle to save lives. If only there was someway I could get through the television screen, and thank them personally...