Wednesday, January 19, 2000

'ER' undergoes surgery for post-Clooney slump




BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BURBANK, Calif. — Posted above the ER Intensive Care Unit sink is a reminder of how the top-rated series has evolved in six seasons.

        Five of the nine Emergency Department doctors and physician's assistants on the staff list have left the TV show filmed at Warner Bros. studio here:

        Doug Ross (George Clooney), Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben), David Morgenstern (William H. Macy), Angela Hicks (CCH Pounder) and Maggie Doyle (Jorjan Fox).

        Not on the list are the six new full-time characters added this season, bringing the total regular cast to 13, the largest on a prime-time TV series.

        “It's been a challenge,” admits John Wells, ER executive producer, talking to TV critics squeezed into ICU Room No. 2.

        “But it's been exciting when you have new characters because they can intermingle with your old characters. It's different, but it's exciting,” he says.

        The radical surgery on TV's most popular series was prescribed by producers unhappy with “a bit of a lull in the show” last season. A half-dozen doctors were summoned to improve it, and eventually replace some of the drama's favorite characters, particularly Nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) who leaves this spring, and her boyfriend, Dr. Ross.

        “There's nothing sadder than watching a show that was once proud and great, and it's just sort of limping along,” Mr. Wells says.

Margulies "time to go'
        Ms. Margulies, called “the real soul of the show” by Mr. Clooney, has turned down a three-year, $27-million offer to stay on ER in order to pursue other roles. NBC pays Warner Bros. a record $13 million per episode.

        “I just felt it was time (to go),” Ms. Margulies explains in the ICU Room press conference. “In all honesty, I need to spread my wings as an actor and try things.”

        The 1995 Emmy-winner says she has heard from angry ER fans who can't understand why she wouldn't want to be a millionaire.

        “What saddened me was that it's about the money, and not the work. If money wasn't an issue, people wouldn't care,” she says.

        “There seems to be this great American fantasy that money makes your problems go away, but it doesn't. The problems I had as a waitress I still have,” she says.

One of three originals
        Actor Anthony Edwards, whose Dr. Mark Greene will be one of three original characters next season, doesn't begrudge his friends for leaving the 15-hour-a-day grind of serial drama television.

        “I'm happy she (Julianna) has made the decision to do something that's right for her, because we only want people here who want to be here,” he says.

        “I don't take her leaving as any personal sense of a rejection of the show or our friendship,” he says, “the same way when Sherry (Stringfield) decided to leave. We're talking about a TV show, right?”

        But not just any show. For five consecutive seasons, NBC's medical drama has been the dominant No. 1 series on TV. Cast members credit the writers and producers for keeping the show intelligent and unpredictable, and by continually rotating doctors in and out of the ER.

        “Most storytelling on TV and in film is emotionally condescending. You (the viewer) are 10 minutes ahead of them, and they keep plodding along. We are not condescending,” Mr. Edwards says.

        Says Mr. Clooney, who left after five seasons last February: “The show survives, because it's a good show, and it's smart writing. And Tony Edwards is the center of it.”

        Truth be told, that Emergency Department staff list tacked to the pale green ICU wall also doesn't list former doctors Susan Lewis (Ms. Stringfield), John Taglieri (Rick Rossovich), Carl Vucelich (Ron Rifkin), William Swift (Michael Ironside) or Anna Del Amico (Maria Bello).

        It should be replaced with a current roster: originals John Carter (Noah Wyle), Peter Benton (Eriq LaSalle) and Mark Greene; plus Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes), Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston), Luka Kovac (Goran Visnjic), Jing-Mei Chen (Ming-Na), Robert Romano (Paul McCrane), Cleo Finch (Michael Michele) and Dave Malucci (Erik Palladino).

Martin out, Tierney in
        Soon, inept medical student Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) also will exit — no great loss — while viewers meet new ICU nurse Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney from NewsRadio). Like Carol Hathaway, Abby is a veteran nurse who has medical school aspirations. “Maura Tierney is one of the greatest actress going. The stuff she's done on television and on film is terrific,” raves Mr. Edwards. “She's a great new assett to the show. You'll love watching that character. So that's when it gets exciting.”

        Another strong addition is Mr. Visnjic, whose smouldering sexiness has made some female ER fans forget about Mr. Clooney.

        Ms. Margulies says her departure should complete the transition.

        “With Doug and Carol out of the picture, I think it will rejuvenate the show,” Ms. Margulies says. “As long as I'm there, you'll think of George.”

        TV Critic John Kiesewetter is reporting from the TV critics' winter press tour.

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