Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Best TV Drama: St. Elsewhere

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I rate this my favorite tv drama. I've been watching the recently re-issued first season DVD. I made a "then and now" dedication slide show for the stars of the first season. I forgot how good Howie Mandel is compared to his current version.

excerpts from a very insightful review from by Mark Labowskie at
Before the indie rock-drenched epiphanies of Grey’s Anatomy, before the adrenalized, crisis-a-minute pace of ER, there was St. Elsewhere, which invented the modern TV medical drama. Breaking with the monochromatic, one-protagonist / one-story formula of Ben Casey and Marcus Welby, M.D., St. Elsewhere was the second show (after Hill Street Blues, which NBC debuted the prior year) to bring soap opera techniques to bear on “serious” drama. It featured an expansive, ensemble cast (12 actors are billed in the opening credits of the first season, along with many recurring guest stars), multiple plotlines in each episode, and ongoing story arcs that frequently involved cliffhangers and the phrase “Previously on…” Rather than focusing on a central character, St. Elsewhere helped popularize the TV trend of making a community— frequently a workplace—the main character. Cast members came and went over the course of its run, but the focus was always on St. Eligius itself, a rundown, under-funded teaching hospital in South Boston.
In addition to modernizing narrative structure, St. Elsewhere also shook up the visual language of the TV drama, using long tracking shots and jittery hand-held camera work (now a TV cliché) to lend a sense of immediacy and continuity to the action. Frequently, the camera will track from one group of actors to another in a single shot, binding several disparate storylines into a larger context. Although primitive compared to the swirling cinematography of ER, the long takes are still impressively choreographed and acted, and helped give TV a visual life it had never had before.
The show alternates seamlessly between medical cases and personal lives, between wrenchingly tragic storylines and bizarrely humorous ones. A baby-faced Tim Robbins, in his first professional role, shows up for a few episodes as an entitled anarchist whom the hospital is forced to treat. A mental patient who thinks he’s a bird roams the hospital (the first of many to escape from St. Eligius’ seemingly open-door psych ward) posing as “Dr. Bullfinch”, visiting patients and attending in surgeries. In the bluntly titled “Down’s Syndrome”, a couple struggles with whether or not to abort their possibly handicapped child; with a minimum of hysteria, the show smartly limns both sides of the argument before building to a toughly unsentimental conclusion.
The doctors struggle with cases, careers, family and romance. Dr. Craig berates and traumatizes the residents, especially the promising Ehrlich, who makes a continual embarrassment of himself. Fiscus, an emergency room doctor, is mugged by a patient and starts carrying a gun to work. The skeevy Dr. Ben Samuels (David Birney), a star surgeon at the hospital, saves lives and ravishes ladies. Dr. Morrison uses every case as a springboard for ruminations on the morality and ethics of medicine. Future semi-famous actors who turn up as guest stars include Ally Sheedy, Michael Madsen, Ray Liotta, Jane Kaczmarek, Judith Light, Laraine Newman, Christopher Guest, Tom Hulce and David Duchovny—who has a brief but memorable bit role in the fifth episode.
What’s remarkable about St. Elsewhere, in contrast to most network shows today, is how much of the drama is understated and implicit. There is, thank God, no voice over extracting pithy morals from every situation. The characters themselves are not wholly articulate. And, notwithstanding some dips into corny melodrama, the show accepts characters and situations as complex and multi-sided. We don’t need to be told why the buppie Dr. Chandler has an ongoing feud with an older, more traditional black nurse; we don’t need to be told why Dr. Fiscus, so skinny and frizzy-haired and perpetually joking, is the kind of guy a woman will date for a while but won’t seriously consider settling down with. Dr. Craig may be an arrogant, smug pill of a man, but he’s also a brilliant doctor, and the show doesn’t ask us to see him as either villainous or secretly vulnerable (unlike, say, the supposedly tough Dr. Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy, who these days cries if someone calls her “ma’am.”)—he is what he is and we accept that as part of the fabric of everyday life.
The show has a much broader canvas and dispersed focus than most hour-long shows today. No one character dominates—Dr. Morrison may have a major storyline in one episode, and then be a bit player in the next three. Storylines disappear and recur, and sometimes are only advanced in a scene or two per episode.  The show often conveys a strong sense of an overwhelming flow, of the diurnal life of the hospital.
Of course, most TV shows are still getting their sea legs the first season, and this one was also innovating a genre. Several of the more boring or mismanaged characters—like Cynthia Sikes as Dr. Annie Cavanero and Terrence Knox as Dr. Peter White—don’t make it through the whole run of the series (you can see why), while Birney, G.W. Bailey and Kavi Raz don’t even survive the first season. (Birney was a popular TV star in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, and may have thought that his lothario character was going to be the de facto leading man; as it turned out, he was outshined by nearly all of the supporting cast and was gradually phased out, to the extent that he barely appears in the last few episodes of the season).
You can see, as the season progresses, the show figuring itself out, seeing which elements are the strongest: Ehrlich and Fiscus, and their testy friendship, gradually become more and more prominent, as does Craig and Ehrlich’s wonderfully complicated relationship (it’s so obvious that Craig’s continual disparagement of Ehrlich is secretly a sign of respect for him that it’s almost regrettable when someone finally articulates this). Recurring characters that would go on to become regulars also prove their stripes in the first season, upstaging some of the nominal stars: Ellen Bry’s cutie-pie Nurse Daniels; Norman Lloyd’s ailing Dr. Auschlander (the world’s longest case of liver cancer); and Barbara Whinnery’s Looney Tunes pathologist Dr. Cathy Martin, the show’s one, sustained note of total surrealism.
St. Elsewhere also suffers from the Liberal White Martyr Complex, though thankfully Dr. Morrison doesn’t dominate nearly as much as Anthony Edwards did on ER. David Morse, with his hoarse voice, floppy perm and strenuously low-key demeanor makes Morrison an overwhelmingly insufferable character. Every single case is an opportunity for him to act aggrieved and put out about something; he never once evinces any compassion for his patients, only for his own suffering noblesse. In one episode, an Eastern European man shanghais Morrison into making house calls in an immigrant neighborhood. The man tries to teach Morrison lessons in “compassion”, while Morrison whines about his right to privacy; the whole storyline is like a contest to see which of them can be more self-righteous.
But television, ultimately, is about the long haul. St. Elsewhere may have been still figuring itself out in the first season, but it already had the two most important elements in place: a distinctive, original tone, and a number of compelling characters that you want to watch week after week, for years on end.


NYC Educator said...

I liked St. Elsewhere very much, and I think I watched the whole thing on reruns a few years back. Now I really like House, though it's entirely different. I love Sandra Oh, but Grey's Anatomy makes me retch.

Anonymous said...

Love the St. Elsewhere recap. A great show.

One problem though, David Duchovny never appeared on St. Elsewhere. Duchovny didn't start acting until 1986. This episode aired in 1982. In '82, Duchov was attending Yale grad school in New Haven. I know. I was there.

David Bellel said...

the writer could be wrong, but
I checked this on this:
"St. Elsewhere" .... Patient in woman's underwear (1 episode, 1982)
    - Samuels and the Kid (1982) TV Episode (uncredited) .... Patient in woman's underwear

now I watched that episode and didn't notice him. I'll go back and look again. It's possible he could have slipped away from Yale for a quickie

Anonymous said...

I just watched the 5th episode and I am sure it is David Duchovny. He is in the early scene with Howie Mandel in the ER. I watched it a few times because at first it is hard to tell but towards the end of the scene you can definitely tell it is him.