Television Review

'ER' ends 15-year run, but life will go on

Eriq La Salle and Alex Kingston in the series finale of ''ER.'' Eriq La Salle and Alex Kingston in the series finale of ''ER.'' (james stenson/nbc)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / April 3, 2009
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As NBC's stalwart medical drama "ER" prepared to sign off after 15 seasons, original cast member Noah Wyle returned as Dr. John Carter. Carter had transformed from med student naif to wizened elder, after enduring professional and personal triumphs and tragedies. During a recent episode Carter addressed filmmakers documenting life in a busy inner-city emergency room.

"I try to embrace the idea that everything that happens has never happened before," he told them.

Of course, what made "ER" compelling - and sometimes frustrating - over its lengthy run was the opposite. The repetitive cycle of saving and losing lives, breaking in new doctors and saying goodbye to old ones, the exciting beginnings and sad endings of romances borne of long, adrenaline-fueled, and often bloody days and nights kept millions tuned in even when that recycling got a little a too familiar.

This season the writers approached the end skillfully with each episode gathering momentum toward last night's gratifying two-hour series finale.

The conclusion managed to pack in the return of several familiar faces - in an admirably organic fashion - and the tying up of story lines for current cast members as it laid out one 24-hour stretch in the ER.

In some smart ways it was just another episode as the patients of the week - including a teen with alcohol poisoning, a pregnant mother in distress, and an elderly woman taking her final breaths - helped the hospital staff move a little farther down the road of enlightenment. In particular, Dr. Tony Gates (John Stamos) and nurse Samantha Taggart (Linda Cardellini) appear as if they are finally going to make it work thanks to a lesson about treasuring the time we have.

There were also several grace notes that included callbacks to previous episodes with the especially enjoyable touch for longtime fans of the reprise of the pulse-quickening opening credit sequence tying together old and new cast members appearing in the finale.

In a classy move, many of the longtime supporting characters - nurses Chuny, Malik, and Haleh and desk clerks Jerry and Frank - were given touching and funny moments and a chance to say goodbye.

And as Carter opened a state-of-the-art health center for the disenfranchised in his late son's name, many veteran faces returned to reminisce including Drs. Weaver (Laura Innes), Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), Corday (Alex Kingston), and Benton (Eriq La Salle).

But, as we were so often told, since County General is a teaching hospital, several students were also introduced as a reminder of the cycle. One prospective student turned out to be Rachel Greene (Hallee Hirsh), daughter of the late Mark Greene (original cast member Anthony Edwards).

It was hard not to think about saying goodbye to an era as "ER" signed off. Although it's been years since "everyone" watched anything, including "ER," the drama was the last vestige of a TV landscape that pre-dated the explosion of the viewing universe with countless niche channels, exceptional original cable programming, and time-shifted and Internet viewing.

The show itself ended much as it began 15 years ago. Ambulances careered into the lot in front of the emergency room bay doors and a team of doctors, nurses, and med students sprang into action. (Almost comically echoing the series own increasing descent into over-the-top melodrama the last trauma was a multiple-patient, substation explosion.)

"ER" 's time of death may have been 11 p.m. last night but it concluded with the realistic sense that although the screen had gone black, the cycle of life and death is still going on at County General.