ER first aired in September 1994 and quickly became a massive hit for NBC and the anchor of its Thursday night “Must See TV” lineup (which also included Friends and Seinfeld). At its peak—during the 1996 to 1997 season—approximately 30 million viewers a week were tuning in to see the emergency room staff at Chicago’s Cook County General Hospital do their thing, making it the most watched program in North America. ER aired for 15 seasons and turned many of its cast members, including George Clooney, Julianna Margulies, and Noah Wyle, into major stars.
Now, the show is a major hit all over again—this time on Hulu. The service began streaming every episode in mid-January and already, as E! reports, over 35,000 people have viewed the series in its entirety, making it one of Hulu’s top four shows overall. As Lisa Holme, Hulu’s vice president of acquisitions, told E!, “It has surpassed expectations for sure, both from a consumption perspective, but even more so from the zeitgeist that it has kind of picked up. … I think there was even more pent-up demand and nostalgia than we anticipated.”
It makes sense: Like a huge chunk of the country, ER was appointment television for me. During my freshman year in college, my friends and I viewed NBC’s Must-See TV as our pre-party time; we’d head out as soon as we emotionally recovered from the drama of that night’s episode. And back when the show’s reruns ran on TBS during the late ’90s and early aughts, I’d often find myself sucked back in. But even that was a very long time ago. So, what exactly is it about an almost 25-year-old drama that makes it so appealing to brand new viewers in 2018?
After revisiting a number of episodes from season one, there are a few things that stand out immediately. First, I was struck by the diversity of characters. As you can imagine, creating a big city emergency room involves a lot of people, which includes numerous guest stars and background roles. It’s a pleasant revelation that there’s representation across the board, in both ethnicity and gender. While initially the main cast is predominantly white—Wyle, Clooney, Margulies, Anthony Edwards, Sherry Stringfield—it’s clear that Eriq LaSalle’s Dr. Peter Benton is anything but a token character. There are women and people of color—including women of color—in almost every scene. Frankly, you’d be hard-pressed to find that level of diversity in a lot of shows on air right now in 2018. When Frances McDormand spoke at the Oscars about “inclusion riders”, this is the kind of set one could imagine seeing as a result. ER was just doing it back in 1994.
And over the course of its run, the show continued to evolve and include an even more diverse range in its main cast. That included Dr. Kerry Weaver (played by Laura Innes, who started in season two). She walked with a limp and used a forearm crutch, but her disability was hardly addressed, especially during her early seasons on the show. It was just part of who she was, along with being a badass doctor and a complex woman. Years later, she came out as a lesbian. Offering a snapshot of society as it really looks has kept the show modern in a way that has failed many others. (Looking at you, everybody’s problematic fave Friends.)
That authenticity also plays out in the humanistic look and feel of the show. This is not a glossy, pretty, high-shine hospital like the ones you see on Grey’s Anatomy or even ER‘s contemporary Chicago Hope. (Yes, there was literally another network drama set in a Chicago hospital that debuted the exact same week on CBS.) ER‘s break room was crappy. The lighting wasn’t great. The doctors often looked exhausted. When we did see their lives outside the hospital, they hung out and lived in places that felt economically and culturally realistic. There was a grittiness to ER that didn’t feel put-on or overblown.
Original cast member Stringfield, who played Dr. Susan Lewis, agrees about this aspect of the show’s appeal, telling E!, “It was about real people and real things that happened. So much changed, just in the business here in Hollywood. Sometimes you look at people playing a doctor and they’ve got barrel curls or a blowout. You’re just like, ‘What?’… Generally, I felt like ER, even now, like you said, it’s timeless because it was real people! We’re still real people with real problems and real illnesses. No matter what images are presented in front of us, we are still real people with real medical emergencies. Real people go to medical school and real people go to the ER. I just thought it reflected that perfectly. It didn’t shy away from the non-glamorous reality that we actually all live.”
And then there is the ahead-of-its-time way that ER tackled issues. In the two-hour pilot alone, the staff of County General is faced with gun violence, suicide, and child abuse—but none of them are given the “very special episode” treatment that was so common on network television. They were all just part of the daily chaos of the job. That doesn’t mean the show didn’t handle them with nuance or thoughtfulness. But over the years, the way the show continued to portray serious issues of the day as complicated but also matter of fact—be it AIDS or abortion or sexuality—is just another way that it holds up all these years later.
In revisiting the show, I also noticed something I never would have paid attention to back then: There were a lot of women writing and directing ER. In the first season alone, women are credited as either the writer or the director on 14 episodes. Given how hard women in Hollywood—outside of Shondaland, of course—are still fighting behind the scenes, this was a refreshing discovery. And I think one that greatly impacts not only the quality but the longstanding popularity of the show. Diverse storytelling has legs, across demographics and time.
So, if you find yourself with a few hundred hours on your hands and you’re looking to invest in high-quality programming, get yourself to Cook County General. STAT.