New producer's chore: Keeping `ER' healthy

Long-running show has a crippling case of too many stars

October 23, 2003|By Verne Gay | Verne Gay,NEWSDAY

True-blue ER fans have this genuine sense of proprietorship for their show that sometimes translates into true love and sometimes into true boredom. But like a favorite old dog, they're not about to kick it out into the cold and - as the show enters its 10th season - most would argue this old dog still has plenty of life and soul.

Into this gathering twilight has stepped Christopher Chulack, ER's new executive producer, the man who must reverse nature and TV's inexorable course.

He is 45, describes himself as "pathologically shy," and insists, "There are a lot of little ways to go here before we turn out the lights." Lots, but just to put Chulack's task in perspective, NBC has locked the Thursday-night show up through the 2005-2006 season (its 12th) while numbers this season have remained steady (around 20 million viewers) despite a stiff challenge from CBS' surging Without a Trace.

Now the bad news: Even the producers now agree that there are so many lead characters (10) that they tend to wash each other out.

"A true ensemble show," Chulack says somewhat dryly.

ER of the 2003-2004 season also is shorter by a full two minutes than its 1994-1995 debut season, because NBC carved out more real estate to sell commercials. That has forced producers to stuff more stories with more characters into a smaller box, leaving viewers dazed and occasionally exhausted.

And quite possibly producers, too. The former show-runner, Jack Orman, left last season to start his own company, and NBC asked - most likely begged - John Wells for help. Wells was busy running The West Wing, so instead he reached out to Chulack - a logical choice because ER is tightly wrapped into Chulack's DNA and vice versa.

Like Wells, he was a founding producer and won a 1995 Director's Guild Award for the storied episode "Hell and High Water" (the rescue of the boy in the storm drain by George Clooney's character). Chulack would leave to produce Third Watch, Citizen Baines and Presidio Med, while also directing the occasional ER - including the recent and harrowing two-part arc, "Kissangani" and "The Lost," which were designed to refocus not only Noah Wyle's John Carter but the entire show.

Upon returning full time, Chulack immediately rebuilt the set on the Warner lot, expanding the triage area and waiting room so that both "would play more into the story." There also were long meetings in Hawaii (where "Kissangani" and "The Lost" were filmed) during hiatus earlier this year. One conclusion: "There were so many series regulars, and there was a feeling that we consciously or unconsciously had had every one of them in every episode [last season]. That's hard to do with limited minutes of story time in any given hour," Chulack says.

The new boss decided "to focus stories on a select cast member for particular episodes. ... We also didn't feel any obligation to have to cross over to everyone's story in episodes - it was hard to tell those stories and they got cluttered." (The change is now obvious. One recent episode - "Dear Abby" - was almost entirely about Maura Tierney's Abby Lockhart; "Kissangani" and "The Lost" focused on just Carter and Goran Visnjic's Luka Kovak.)

Despite the new focus on one or two characters at a time, Bob Newhart will join the cast for four episodes next week - he plays an architect who is suffering from an eye disease. But this also will mean an extended story arc for Sherry Stringfield's Susan Lewis, his doctor. And still another new character will join: Linda Cardellini, who will play Samantha Taggart, a nurse and single mother.

Yet perhaps the biggest question of them all centers on the biggest character of them all - Wyle, a regular from the day ER hit the air in 1994. There's been speculation that he will leave the show, and he will be (mostly) AWOL through the rest of the season.

Breathe easy, says Chulack. Wyle's back next month for a brief starring turn (in sweeps, of course) and will return full time next year. After that, he's sticking around. "Noah Wyle," says Chulack, "is on ER. He's in the main title [credits]."

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