ER / The West Wing

Regular airtime: Sundays, 8pm ET (NBC)
Cast: Richard Schiff, Allison Janney, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, Martin Sheen, Joshua Malina, Mary McCormack, Janel Moloney, Stockard Channing, Dulé Hill, Alan Alda, Jimmy Smits

by Samantha Bornemann

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Things Fall Apart

“Funny how things work out.”
“Not so funny, really.”
— Will Bailey (Joshua Malina) and C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), The

West Wing

“We were all here a long time before you. We worked together. You’re the new guy. You need to fit in with us.”
— “Is this a damn social club?”

— Doctors Kovac (Goran Visnjic) and Clemente (John Leguizamo), ER

The voice of NBC’s hyperbolic promos has changed, but he’s reciting the same ridiculous party line: ER, we’re told again and again, is as good as it’s ever been, and nearly every upcoming episode is so astounding, so jarring, that you must. not. miss it. Under the guidance of executive producer John Wells, big tragedy and big stunts have become so run-of-the-mill on the 11-year-old medical drama that one might say it “jumps the shark” every other week.

Loyal and even casual viewers have seen buckets of blood — recall the schizophrenic patient who stabbed Doctors John Carter (Noah Wyle) and Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) and left them to die — and so much high-adrenaline turmoil over the show’s run that nothing shocks anymore, except maybe the series’ desperate turn to the tasteless and macabre. How else to characterize the decision to sic two different helicopters on Dr. Romano (Paul McCrane)? First he lost an arm to the blades of a chopper; months later, back at work, another one fell on him. And the traumas keep coming.

It’s no wonder, then, that West Wing fans panicked in 2003 when creator Aaron Sorkin left his high-minded series in the hands of NBC’s Thursday night schlockmeister. They complained that Wells (an original executive producer on the series) would run Wing into the ground, turning it into another mish-mash of clunky storylines and ratings stunts. As his first episodes in charge followed up First Daughter Zoey’s (Elisabeth Moss) kidnapping with President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) temporarily ceding power to John Goodman’s Republican, their fears seemed well-founded.

More big events followed, from Donna’s (Janel Moloney) near death in the Gaza Strip through last month’s much-hyped, ultimately ho-hum live debate between Presidential contenders Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Vinick (Alan Alda). But West Wing didn’t quite crumble under new management. Rather, Wells made collapse — specifically, that of Bartlet’s merry band of West Wingers — the long-term story. On his watch, the series’ chief relationships have been tested and compromised, turning Sorkin’s noble, fast-walking liberals into more than the sum of their quips and ideals. They’re also myopic, cranky, and sad.

Josh (Bradley Whitford) thought he could keep Donna as his Girl Friday forever. By ignoring her requests for more challenging work, he lost her to a competing candidate in the primaries and feels lonelier than ever as he struggles to run Santos’ campaign. Strident Toby (Richard Schiff) was unhappy for ages — so much so that Andie (Kathleen York) refused to live with him, fearing his gloom would infect their children. In this season’s second-most-talked-about episode, he was revealed as a White House leak and fired by an angry, though not-quite-surprised Bartlet. “The one thought that hits the hardest,” he told Toby, “is that this was somehow inevitable, that you’ve always been heading for this kind of crash and burn.” Only C.J. (Allison Janney) remains at the President’s side. Now Chief of Staff, she’s often at odds with Josh, cut off from Toby, and fighting to make something of Bartlet’s remaining lame duck term. The three could really use a goofy, gentlemanly go-between like Sam Seaborn to restore some of the peace. Does Rob Lowe really still have other plans?

If all this isolation, workaholism, and unease feel familiar, it’s because such characterization is straight out of the ER playbook. Both series revolve around big-deal vocations — politics, emergency medicine — while occasionally spinning the focus to their principals’ stunted personal lives. Mismatched, jaded coworkers find a way to work together, and then events (new management, new terms of office) conspire to shake them up.

To that end, a number of docs have checked in to County General over the years, most recently Eve Peyton (Kristen Johnston) and Clemente (John Leguizamo). True to pattern, Clemente has proved quirky (sneaking in a chimp as a patient) and bossy. And, of course, he has a secret backstory, namely, an affair with a married woman. Leguizamo is a consistently charismatic performer, but Wells and co. have been slow to find real things for him to do. The best they’ve come up with is a “pissing match” with Kovac (Goran Visnjic) over how to treat patients.

Johnston is faring better with her by-the-book nurse supervisor, but Leguizamo was lost early on amid the ongoing avalanche of guest stars. Just weeks after Clemente arrived, John Stamos appeared to flirt with Neela (Parminder Nagra) and usher in Serena Williams’ sweeps-timed few scenes as a hysterical victim. The series is beginning to resemble Gunsmoke with so many characters floating in and out, stealing the limelight for an instant, just before they disappear.

And yet, some story constants remain, no matter how high-wattage the temp talent. Dysfunctional romance has been part of ER since the beginning, when Carol (Julianna Margulies) made her debut in a coma, having attempted suicide in despair over her dalliance with Doug (George Clooney). More recently, Kovac and Abby (Maura Tierney) depressed each other (“You’re never happy,” he memorably told her), so she took up with Carter for one of the most excruciatingly dead-end relationships in recent TV memory. Meanwhile, Kovac shacked up with Sam (Linda Cardellini), largely because he really liked having her son around. On one level, these mismatched pairs make for drab, anticlimactic television. On another, Wells’ admirable if twisted devotion to depicting unhappy lives is, dare I say, rubbernecking fun. He’s TV’s go-to guy for “love” stories so uncomfortable you can’t. look. away.