any other reason, screen this St. Elsewhere DVD to see how far we've
come in defining the term "good television."
those of you old enough to remember how good this show was, you'll be
– at how badly it has aged.
same old TV curse: a series that attempts some bold new moves is considered
innovative and fresh. The format is admired, and then copied to death, for
years to come. We then return to the original, to rejoice in its newness,
and it now somehow looks dated, dopey and deliberate. Not it's fault. But
that's life on – and with – the tube.
Back in 1982, this (along with Hill Street Blues) was considered the
top of the quality heap, and what a heap it was. Most of television then was
filled with such dead air as Manimal, Knight Rider, The Love Boat and
The Facts of Life. Low-rated NBC, with nothing to lose, looked toward
quality programming as a possible last resort at winning viewers (what a
Cheers, which would eventually become the
top-rated sitcom on television (and also one of the longest running).
However, its initial audience was embarrassingly small. NBC's new motto,
however, was ballsy in the face of such heated competition: if it's good
stick with it. America will eventually come around. And stick with it they
did. And soon everybody knew their name. That
same season, they premiered
Could you imagine this kind of corporate courage today?
also encouraged by the smart, daring story lines and above-average,
ensemble- cast acting of Hill Street Blues; St. Elsewhere was
considered Hill Street Hospital, with the same lofty goals and fluid
formula in mind. However, the show did not generate the same excitement
among viewers (although critics raved). The show wound up with anemic,
flat-lining ratings week after week as 1982 turned into 1983.
however, stood firm: stand by your quality programming. In retrospect, the
courage to not wimp out and cancel a good thing was nothing short of a
revelation. They actually put their money where their mouth was: they
believed that quality was more important than ratings. As word got out about
their noble cause, America came to pay their respects.
– the hospital and the series itself – was an underdog. The storyline seemed
surefire: in working-class Boston, a scrappy hospital named St. Eligus (but
nicknamed St. Elsewhere) did its best to operate despite an undeserved bad
reputation, limited budgets, rough-and-tumble patients and lovesick staff.
Everybody is constantly walking down hallways, in bad perms and knit ties.
but take another look today, and you are faced with a bad diagnosis: for all
its pretention to "real-life drama," the storylines are pure soap opera,
which means bad soap opera; the staff is way too pretty to be ultimately
believable, the patients are sick but never truly look sick (only TV sick,
with some pancake makeup applied). No spit. No vomit. No diarrhea. Not that
we really want to see this, but if we are told that this is gritty and real,
then let's really see it. Don't pull punches.
occasional outbreaks of violence (remember, this is supposed to be a tough
neighborhood) seems choreographed and over-rehearsed. The tough guys causing
trouble are pure eighties style – like extras out of the Michael Jackson
"Bad" video. To give you an idea of the degree of threat, Ray Liotta plays a
street-gang member, and it feels like acting during every tense moment.
worse, with few exceptions, most actors on the show are busy gunning for
their Emmy nominations, and it gets in the way (this still happens today.
Take, for example the over-rated and never-funny Scrubs, in which
every acTOR is actTING at every moment, to the point of distraction).
NOT DEAD UNTIL I SAY HE'S DEAD," acts David Birney, as a doctor performing a
tense, acting-oriented surgery. He'll pick up his Emmy on the way out, thank
accents come and go – some actors choose to use it, others don't.
to show us intense symbolism, Norman Lloyd (no accent except Shakespearian)
plays the grand old doc who is dying of liver cancer (odd irony: liver
specialist gets liver cancer – there is a symbolic lesson in there
somewhere). Still, he musters up the energy – TV style – to spout endless
words of wisdom. Also, he is always bathed in an angelic light, be it from
an overhead lightbulb or an X-ray screen. Whenever he appears on camera,
this lighting trick never fails or even flickers to remind us that it's an
ongoing gimmick; it's so overused that it almost becomes a running gag, like
playing "Hi, Bob" with The Bob Newhart Show.
(and prove again) that the show is young, hip and groovy – initially, something
we've never seen or heard before – we are treated to maverick surgeons who
set their boomboxes right smack in the middle of the operating room. As they
cut bone and make small talk, they groove to cover versions of "Born To Run"
and "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" (although we're asked to believe these covers
guard, of course, is caught off guard.
you got today?" complains the snobby Dr. Craig, played by the always
over-the-top (in a good way) William Daniels. "You got doctors with gym
did he know. This was the age before tattoos and nipple rings.
Daniels is one of the true LOOK, I'M ACTING treasures – he's having a ball
here, and you can't help but love it. Also not so bad are Ellen Bry as the
seen-it-all, frustrated nurse and – surprise – Howie Mandel, the only
non-actor in the troupe who actually feels real and not like an actor.
can appreciate the rare underplaying – like the late Ed Flanders as the
no-nonsense good guy, and a soft-spoken David Morse as the idealized, caring
doctor you'd better hope you have when you're admitted. And yes, this is
where Denzel Washington got his start, but he's underused in this first
all is an episode featuring heavy acting act-TORS James Coco and Doris
Roberts, as a homeless couple acting like we like to see our homeless people
act on TV: slightly dirty but ultimately lovable. It's all very similar to
how we like our doctors on TV: to act and look like actors.
though Coco and Roberts are practically chewing the scenery, we are told in
the DVD extra that they, and this particular episode, garnered about a
zillion Emmys, and we are to rejoice in their acting chops and their
touching story that feels so written and so acted.
More seemingly stale storylines abound (even though they were fresh as newly
baked bread in their day): a Communist doctor visits (uh-oh); Dr. Craig's
best friend is now transsexual and Craig must come to grips with this
(slowly, of course); Tom Hulce has amnesia; Janis Page is a sexy flasher; a
guy thinks he's a bird (and this actually becomes a story arc!). And the
worst terrorist we are forced to deal with is -- drum roll please -- Tim
did we know. If only real life was as well-acted and well-written as "real"
©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: October 8, 2007.