New 'ER' from Crichton is no smooth operation

September 19, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"ER" has to improve.

zTC Anyone who has seen even a slice of an episode of "St. Elsewhere" knows how good medical dramas can be. Let's be kind and not compare "ER," which will premiere at 9 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11), to "St. Elsewhere" just yet.

Based on the fact that Michael ("Jurassic Park") Crichton is executive producer, let's just believe for now that the drama about life, death and bad coffee in an emergency room is going to get better. But based on how little improvement from the rough cut of the pilot seen in August to the finished version of the first two episodes, which I saw last week, I admit that such belief might be a big mistake.

As of today, what we have is a show in which the main set is a hallway where people are wheeled in on gurneys from ambulances.

There's always a nurse or attendant in the hallway telling us what's wrong, yelling, "Overdose!" or "She's in labor! or "A building fell on him!" -- all of which happens in tonight's pilot. There is also a knife wound, a child with ulcers, someone going into cocaine convulsions and a lung cancer patient, who, for the sake of a little variety, walks in under his own steam.

Through various traumas, we are introduced to the staff of the emergency room, hard at work in this war zone.

There's Anthony Edwards, as the head of the emergency room; Eriq LaSalle, as the talented resident; George Clooney, as a handsome pediatrician; Sherry Stringfield, as a female doctor everyone tries to hit on; and Noah Wyle, as a third-year medical student.

You have seen each of the types before.

It's a show with a mind-numbing number of emergency cases that go whizzing past the viewer faster than you can say, "Get me 50 cc's of Troptapoptalockalane. Now!"

Mainly, "ER" makes the mistake of confusing emergency situations with drama. Crichton seems to believe that if you show enough people who are in a panic, viewers will have to be interested.

He's wrong. Take the scene that features a mother giving birth in a taxicab in the hospital parking lot. If you don't know the mother, the cab driver, the baby or the doctor, it doesn't add up to much.

Tonight's pilot seems to go through every medical emergency scene you've ever seen.

For example, it opens with an elderly woman in cardiac arrest. The doctor puts a pair of electric heart stimulaters to her chest, the body bounces, but there is no heartbeat. He applies them again. Still no reaction. He talks to the patient as if she can hear him, "Come on, lady." He applies the stimulaters one last time. Lo and behold, a heartbeat!

You've seen the scenes so many times on so many other shows that you know practically every line of emergency room dialogue before it's spoken.

That should be happening at the end of the season when the writers are tired, not with the pilot.

Crichton and his writers are the ones who need about a thousand volts from the old heart stimulaters, not the patients. Starting Thursday at 10, "ER" will go head to head with another doctor drama, which is also set in a Chicago hospital -- producer David E. Kelley's "Chicago Hope." If "ER" doesn't get some intensive care, it could be headed for the morgue.

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