‘ER: The Complete Thirteenth Season’: From Creative Height to Life Support

You don’t have to look further than Doug Ross heroically pulling a kid out of a storm drain to know that shocking “event” episodes were always a part of ER.

In the series’ earlier years, however, “event” episodes were the exception not the rule. Most of the drama of ER came from directly from the ER, and the everyday challenges and experiences of working in an inner-city hospital (somewhat augmented for TV, of course.) Outings such as the aforementioned “Hell and High Water”, or “The Long Way Around”, in which Nurse Carol Hathaway is held hostage in a convenient store, stood out in part because they took the audience away from the everyday rhythm of County General.

Somewhere toward the end of ER’s first decade, the tables turned. Suddenly it seemed like doctors were being held hostage, stalked by unbalanced patients or mauled by murderous helicopters at least once a week. Along with the revolving door of cast members, the shift to non-stop “gotcha” TV represented ER’s transition from a show at its creative height, to one at its creative nadir.

Plotwise, ER’s 13th season begins on a notable low point. The focus is on Nurse Samantha Taggart (Linda Cardellini), who has been kidnapped by her psychotic ex-husband. Taggart’s ex is on the run because he and a gang of thugs went on a shooting spree in the ER during the Season 12 finalé.

It sounds like edge-of-your seat television, but the whole affair is sorely lacking in any real tension, or the sense that the storyline is adding any layers and nuance to the overall narrative, or to Sam as a character. As the episode begins, the most of the ER staff is only a few hours away from being held at gunpoint, and one of their own is being held hostage by a pack of criminals. Yet the characters seem almost bored by the entire experience. Even the police don’t seem to be actively searching very hard for Sam and her fellow kidnap victim, son Alex. I can’t blame them — Cardellini portrays perennial victim Sam as a total wet blanket and the character is an extremely poor choice to front a major plot.

Meanwhile, the series would have been better served by keeping the drama at the hospital, where Abby (Maura Tierney) has just gone into premature labor and hottie paramedic Tony Gates (John Stamos) has just become the ER’s newest know-it-all intern. As Abby and boyfriend/fellow doctor Luka (Goran Visnjic) watch their baby son fight for his life and, later on, adjust to parenthood, both actors deliver subtle, believable performances.

When Luka begins having trouble with an angry former patient later in the season, it almost seems like an imposition on a plot that was already working without manufactured drama. The same is true when Gates’ personal life begins to spin out of control; wasn’t it enough that he’s trying to adjust to working in the ER and flirting with surgeon Neela Rasgotra (Parminder Nagra)? Why did the writers have to add a troubled ex-girlfriend and a maybe daughter into the mix?

Save for Laura Innes’ prickly Dr. Kerry Weaver, every main cast member from ER’s glory days was long gone by Season 13 (Innes, too, had left by season’s end.) As the old guard left the show, many of the new characters introduced in their place simply failed to click due to shoddy writing, poor casting, or both. For every viable character like Neela or Gates, there are at least two or three duds — I’m looking at you Gregory Pratt (Mekhi Phifer), Ray Barnett (Mekhi Phifer) and Samantha Taggart. The result is a Season 13 DVD set that can be digested in half the actual run time because entire characters can be disposed of with the touch of the fast forward button.

By the end of the DVD set, Barnett is headed out of the ER anyway, the victim of Season 13’s “most shocking event ever to hit the ER”. What happens to Barnett — he loses both legs after being hit by truck — truly is shocking — but its a shock that is blunted by all of the “most shocking moment ever” in the 20 or so episodes preceding it.

RATING 4 / 10