Inspired by creator Michael Crichton's experiences as a medical student in a hospital emergency room, ER quickly became one of the most compelling shows of the 1990s, each episode a whirlwind of intense and involving drama, gritty realism, and offbeat humor. Heading the staff at the inner-city Chicago hospital is Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), a doctor so good at providing care to the downtrodden, helpless, or just plain quirky patients that his career blossoms even as his personal life crumbles. Greene is the soul of the cast, but the heart is Julianna Margulies's nurse Carol Hathaway. Her character was intended only for the pilot episode, but she ended up capturing viewers with her palpable empathy for patients and her troublesome romance with womanizing pediatrician Doug Ross (George Clooney). The rest of the central cast consisted of compassionate Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), Peter Benton (Eriq Lasalle), whose prodigious talent nearly matches his ambition, and his fresh-faced student, John Carter (Noah Wyle). Other key characters included ER heads Morgenstern and Swift (William H. Macy and Michael Ironside, respectively), overachieving student Deb (Ming Na), who returned later in the show's run, attending physician Angela Hicks (CCH Pounder), and physical therapist Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Rueben).
The remarkably strong first season showed off its sharp ensemble cast through a variety of compelling story lines both personal (Carter's conflicts with Benton, Lewis's struggles with her no-account sister, Chloe, played by Kathleen Wilhoite) and professional (a holiday blizzard and especially the harrowing tale of a pregnancy gone bad, "Love's Labor Lost," which won five Emmy Awards). When Carter is pondering whether his future includes the ER, Green jokes, "It's not bad: Stress, late nights, hard work, no pay--it's hard to beat." It's hard to imagine people choosing to work under those conditions, but they do, and in the process these very human people perform superhuman feats as they face life and death as part of their daily jobs.
ER kicked off its second season by introducing a character who would turn out to be a long-term member of--and a major irritation for--the inner-city Chicago hospital staff. After Greene is promoted to attending physician, the door is open for a new chief resident, and in walks Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes), who wastes no time ruffling everyone's feathers with her strict managerial style and subtle putdowns. One of her prime targets, Susan Lewis, struggles to balance her personal and professional life when she has to take care of her abandoned infant niece. The Lewis character grows the most during the season, along with second-year student Carter, whose natural compassion gives way to professional ambition following the model of his teacher, ambitious and self-absorbed Benton. Benton angles for a position with a renowned cardiovascular surgeon (Ron Rifkin) and has to deal with the fallout from a relationship with physician's assistant Jeannie Boulet, yet he also starts to show some glimmers of humanity.
Greene has his own problems trying to manage a long-distance marriage, while nurse Hathaway bounces back from her aborted first-season marriage attempt to start a new relationship with paramedic Shep (Ron Eldard, who also became Margulies's real-life partner). She buys her first house and enjoys an entire season out of the companionship of Ross, who as always runs into problems with his cowboy style and philandering ways. But just when he's finally driven himself out of the ER, he has to go play hero when he finds a boy pinned in a storm drain in an episode that was nominated for six Emmys and remains one of the, excuse the pun, high-water marks of the series. That and such episodes as "The Healers," which deals with the aftermath of Shep's daring fire rescue, prove that when ER was at its best, it was as good as anything on television. --David Horiuchi
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