The definition of a good soap
Radio might be the most intimate medium but TV is the most sociable; a convivial presence in every living room we’ve ever known, ready with gossip, information, comfort or distraction. In The Friend in the Corner we return to significant TV shows to find out what they did for us, and how they pulled it off.
The Friend in the Corner: ER
Created by ‘Jurassic Park’ guy Michael Crichton, ER explored the work, life and loves of the staff of the Emergency Room in Cook County General Hospital, Chicago. Its first season, which aired in 1994 (1995 in the UK), supercharged the careers of George Clooney, Julianna Margulies and Anthony Edwards. It ended in 2009 after 15 seasons.
From Cagney and Lacey to The Good Wife, American TV networks excel at character-led workplace dramas. When I was little my parents watched Hill Street Blues as a grown-up treat in the evenings, and when I was a teenager I watched thirtysomething alongside them, but ER was the first US drama series I watched independently; the first one that really belonged to me. It was a smash in the US and the build-up to its transmission in the UK was breathless. But when the first episode finally aired I was still surprised by how slick and laconic it was, how much better it was than equivalent British offerings: The Bill (urgh), Casualty (eheu).
As well as being well-written, beautifully performed and absolutely rolling in budget, ER was a window into the daily life of my cultural overlords. Like Roseanne (an earlier sighting of George Clooney, whose face seemed to belong to a different, better universe), ER painted a granular, workaday picture of modern America that was oddly revelatory: pine furniture, wipe-clean surfaces and supermarket clothes, fat people and unisex scrubs and snow shoes. It felt very different from indie movies and Donna Tartt novels, let alone Hollywood flicks, and somehow - because of its verisimilitude - more glamorous and exciting.
Where did you watch it? In the living-room-cum-kitchen of a rented flat in Brixton, South London.
What TV were you watching? A squat 24-inch box with a massive back end, on loan from Radio Rentals.
Who was in the room when you watched it? Just me. My (male) flatmates weren’t interested.
Why did you watch it?
ER is, at heart, a show about relatively young people making their way at work, which made it instantly relatable for a 23-year-old in her first job. In the pilot episode, third year medical student John Carter is the viewer’s avatar. As he is pitched into the maw and people shout strings of code over his head (‘CBC, lytes, Chem7, cardiac enzyme, dig level, 3mg morphine IV push!’) we are reassured by his bewilderment.
Along with squelchy viscera noises (‘Jimmy, get your hand in here and push aside the small intestine’), impenetrable medico-speak was an ER staple, and the refusal to explain it added to the appeal. As with any show that takes you from the outside to the inside - of a police station, of a hospital, of the White House - the thrill for the viewer comes from being treated as an initiate. Watching it, I just felt immensely grown up.
Carter, who admits to having experience only of dermatology and psychiatry - ‘the well dressed specialisms’ - is immediately required to perform tasks at which he is fundamentally incompetent. Like any new recruit in the workplace, his function is to bounce around being well intentioned but wrong. Unlike most new recruits in the workplace, his errors could have terrible consequences. We find out later that he comes from an uber-rich family, and it’s this fundamental patrician confidence that enables him to acknowledge his own inadequacy while continuing to function confidently as a doctor. (Confidence and decisiveness - their presence or absence - are running themes in the first season.) This subtlety made ER a cut above the average; a lesser show would just have portrayed Carter as a brash snob.
ER was a soap, which we’re going to define here as ‘a collection of open-ended dramatic narratives focusing on relationships between recurring characters in a bounded setting’. (When soaps appear in limited seasons, rather than spinning off into narrative infinity, we call them ‘drama series’; but the soapiness - the focus on contextually-related human dramas, rather than on a single overarching storyline - remains the same.) Just as there’s nothing inherently trashy about detective novels or sci-fi or disco, there’s nothing wrong with soaps in and of themselves. What distinguishes a good soap from a bad one is that the plots serve the characters, rather than the characters serving the plot.
The ‘80s had been a soapy decade in the UK. Channel controllers, noting the enthusiasm for Dynasty and Dallas, commissioned EastEnders and Brookside and The Bill and later (God help us) Eldorado, making it possible to surf from teatime to bedtime on nothing but soap. This provoked considerable huffing in stuffier quarters about the cheapening of television drama and the moral decline associated with mindless goggling at the tellybox. But the more important point was that most British soaps, most of the time, are just absolutely bloody dreadful; delirious nightmare carousels of bad writing and reaction-gif acting.
To be satisfying, soap characters have to have fixed points. In a crappy soap, characters are gaping flesh-suits animated by whichever traits the current storyline demands. (Just look at the Wikipedia entry for Ian Beale.) Soap characters can be complex - people are complex - but if they are to give a damn about what happens to them, the audience has to believe that these people have fundamental attributes; that they are bounded in some way; that there are some things they tend to do, and some things they would never do.
As a normal member of the human race Carter is capable of arrogance and fear, vulnerability and braggadocio, open-mindedness and prejudice, naivete and world-weariness. But he has a well thought-out backstory and an integrated, consistent set of characteristics from which his actions arise. Throughout the first few seasons at least, he remains recognisable as a person.
What sort of friend was it?
ER was the cool older hand in your workplace; the funny, popular head of team who invites you to after-work drinks and doesn’t try to put their hand up your skirt. The sort of friend, in fact, that Sherry Stringfield’s Dr Lewis is to Carter.
Stringfield (who left ER because she found fame to be an unpleasant side-effect of acting) was an oddly uneven actor given to emphasising the wrong words in sentences, but about halfway through the first episode she talks to a patient about his probable diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, and Dr Lewis suddenly shows up: a low, beautiful voice, a face you could look at forever, a strong and honest presence. (Later, a man with a duodenal ulcer is convinced he has cancer and the scene is played for laughs. ‘Every person who comes into this hospital is worried they have cancer! YOU DO NOT HAVE CANCER!’)
Who were you in the show? Back then I thought I was Carol Hathaway - beautiful, tragic, universally beloved and desired - but in fact I was probably more like Nurse Lydia, who clocks off on the dot and laughs through her nose. These days Carol strikes me as a sanctimonious pain in the arse anyway.
Are you still friends? I’m still in a relationship with the first few seasons. When Stringfield, Clooney and Margulies moved on, the heart went out of the show and we were left with increasingly bizarre helicopter accidents, endless intra-staff shagging and a slowly deflating Dr Green suffering the trials of Job. In other words, it stopped being a good soap and became an increasingly bad one. But those first couple of seasons still resonate, from the unvarnished portrayal of the cruelties of the US healthcare system to the thoughtful treatments of status, power and ethnicity.
One of the slightly insidious functions of this kind of telly is to show you your own life, but better: smoother, wittier, more noble. ER was my young professional life, but with higher stakes and better one-liners. I’ve had some great colleagues in my time, but I still miss these guys.
For more ersatz ‘90s work colleagues, try our rewatch of Mike Judge’s Office Space:
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Captures much of my memory of ER too. I can’t claim to have worked on this one, but there was a Spielberg link as it’s an Amblin TV production, and as well as Michael Crichton and Jurassic Park, a number of other people involved went on to work on DreamWorks movies.