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Dan Barrett is an industry commentator & TV critic. He does radio - 4BC & ABC GC and co-hosts the Screen Watching podcast. He's a former Mediaweek deputy editor and content creator for SBS.
The 25th anniversary of Friends, ER, and Chicago Hope
Always Be Watching is written by Dan Barrett who was really more of a 1995 guy.
This week marks the anniversary of some of TV’s biggest shows. It is the 25th anniversary of ER, Friends, and Chicago Hope. The 20th anniversary of The West Wing and Freaks & Geeks, and the 10th anniversary of The Good Wife. All great, popular TV shows that have each become iconic and held up as examples of great TV.
I’m particularly interested in ER, Friends, and Chicago Hope. The fate of all three shows was decided when each aired in its regular Thursday night time-slot on September 22, 1994. Both Chicago Hope and ER had pilot episodes air early in the week, each airing their second episodes against each other later in the week on the Thursday night.
While Friends was a huge success in its own right, I believe that its immediate popularity had a lot to do with airing the same night as the monster success of ER. Both shows had promising, fresh ensembles and it feels like both shows benefited from one another’s glow.
I always feel that our culture is shaped from the middle of a decade rather than from the start of one (for example, 1985-94 is offers a more cohesive cultural narrative than 1980-89 does). 1994 was the start of a brand new era on TV with the respective casts of Friends and ER as the fresh faces that would drive the culture for the next ten years.
The victim of the success of the two shows was the very capable, smart drama Chicago Hope. It was never going to be a zeitgeist show, but the immense success of the very similar ER meant Chicago Hope would never find the audience or respect that it deserved.
September 22, 1994 - has there ever been a more consequential night of scripted television?
ER - September 19, 1994
The top-rated TV show of 1994 was Seinfeld, followed closely behind by ER. It was an absolute juggernaut of a show from the first episode which drew 23.8 million viewers - and that was the second-lowest rated episode of the season. Episode two dipped slightly, but after that the show just kept climbing. By the end of season one, 33.6 million people were watching.
Notable episodes from that first season to watch out for…
24 Hours (the pilot), Blizzard (which has the staff mucking around with zero patients due to a snow blizzard only for that to switch when hundreds are injured in a mass-car pile-up - it’s a fast and frenetic episode, even by ER standards), Love’s Labor Lost (Future West Wing star Bradley Whitford guest-stars as one half of a couple who come in for a mild medical issue only for his wife to suddenly have complications with her pregnancy - it’s the series absolute high-point as Dr Greene deals with the worst day of his career as a doctor), and Motherhood (in which Quentin Tarantino, riding high after the release of zeitgeist hit Pulp Fiction, directs an episode).
Here’s what the critics said:
By the time of the first commercial breakaway, anyone watching the pilot/preview of “ER”– NBC’s new entry into the big-money Thursday 10 p.m. spot it has ruled, via “Hill St. Blues” and “L.A. Law,” lo these many years — should feel understandably frazzled and perhaps even blood-spattered. Series gets off to a spectacular start, a 15-minute uninterrupted sequence, a triumph of editing and intercuts, as the staff of Cook County General’s emergency room deals with an influx of bashed and battered victims of a building collapse in midtown Chicago. -Alan Rich, Variety
ER breaks all these taboos and more. The absorbing two-hour premiere takes place in one 24-hour period in a big-city emergency room (Chicago again), and it's probably the most realistic fictional treatment of the medical profession TV has ever presented. The pace is furious, the narrative jagged and unsettling. Cases are wheeled in and out -- a severed hand, a gunshot wound, a child who has swallowed a key -- and while some are followed to a conclusion of sorts, others disappear without a trace. Yet the episode, directed by Rod Holcomb, is not just a cinema-verite jumble. The characters are fleshed out in a few deft strokes -- one doctor (Anthony Edwards) is being wooed by a cushy private practice -- without hype or sentimentality. -Richard Zoglin, Time
One last thing…
An interesting tidbit from the pilot episode was that Juliana Margulies was supposed to die in the first episode. While ER’s entire cast could be defined as ‘break-out stars’ from that first season of the show, it was Margulies that really dominated the hearts and attention of viewers in that first season. In the pilot, her character is brought in to the emergency room she works in as a nurse after a suicide attempt. The episode was supposed to conclude with her character dying, but thanks to very favourable testing with audiences, she was brought back to life with a couple of lines over-dubbed.
Here’s Margulies talking about how George Clooney gave her some very good advice:
Friends - September 22, 1994
For its first season, Friends was America’s 8th most-watched TV show (tied with Murder She Wrote). 21.5 million people tuned in to see the pilot, but, like ER, the show rose in popularity through that first season. 31.3 million people tuned in for the season finale. It rarely achieved ratings higher than that and never quite had the viewership of sitcom ratings champ Seinfeld. But there was no denying the cultural impact that the show had and continues to have.
The show had a lot in common with ER. Both produced by Warner Bros, they both had fresh (mostly unknown) casts, and both aired on NBC’s Must See Thursday nights. There were no hotter shows on the air than ER and Friends, which remained the case for the next few years.
What the critics said…
While Friends sometimes does appear more like a clumsy parody of MTV's The Real World than as a knowing effort to comically report on the real world, by and large the series puts its band of actors into engaging predicaments, resulting in good laughs. -Miles Beller, The Hollywood Reporter
An ideal slot between “Mad About You” and “Seinfeld” should shore up the prospects for “Friends,” new sitgiggle about six pals’ lives and fortunes in Manhattan. Spirited ensemble playing, directed aptly by James Burrows, should help ease the show through its early days, but if the series is to have legs, funnier writing is needed. -Tony Scott, Variety
And if you want to read a really gross attitude of the time, further on in his review:
Moral and health issues are sidestepped altogether: “Friends” touts promiscuity and offers liberal samples of an openness that borders on empty-headedness. It’s not much of a positive example for juves, though.
Pilot centers around Monica’s bad luck with previous dates and what happens when she welcomes a new man to her bed. An embarrassing situation seems to be the worst that comes of the encounter — at least, for the time being.
Given that the cafe and apartment look somewhat alike--and that the schmoozing and blizzard of acerbic one-liners occur in both places--juxtaposing these locales gets confusing. And the notion that all of these attractive people would remain platonic while flopping around together is a bit far-fetched. Yet these are nit-picks, and “Friends” has so many good moves that there’s really nothing to dislike. It’s all so light and frothy that after each episode you may be hard-pressed to recall precisely what went on, except that you laughed a lot. -Howard Rosenberg, The LA Times
Chicago Hope - September 18, 1994
On Sunday 18 September 1994, CBS premiered Chicago Hope. It was the show that the network and the critics assumed would be one of the big break-outs of 1994. It was a prestige drama written by TV golden child David E Kelley who was white hot at the time, coming off LA Law, Doogie Howser MD, and Picket Fences (where he’d scored a couple of Emmys for his work). Chicago Hope launched on a Sunday night, but would regularly air Thursday nights at 10pm.
On Monday 19 September 1994, NBC premiered ER. When critics first saw the pilots for both, they gravitated towards the more cinematic ER. It seems audiences felt the same way. ER launched on a Sunday night, but, like Chicago Hope, it would air on Thursday nights at 10pm.
Two high quality medical dramas. Both set in Chicago. Both scheduled for the same timeslot. Eventually CBS blinked and moved its show to Monday nights where the show ran for 6 solid seasons and scored a couple of Emmy awards along the way. It was a strong, reliable drama for much of its run - but it was always just a middling performer. Where ER finished the year as the number 2 show, Chicago Hope came in at 29, bringing in an average of 11 million viewers a week - a third of ER.
Those who watched the show remember it fondly, but it was a case of being the right show at literally the exact wrong time.
What the critics said…
Less smart are the plots of the first two episodes, which treat your heartstrings like taffy pulls while imploring you to care which high-risk patients survive. A hint: They don’t call this place “hope” for nothing. All the while Sunday, a genuine issue--whether a hospital should husband its resources for an operation that will benefit so few--is touched upon, but swiftly dispatched.
In Episode 2, airing at 10 p.m. Thursday in the show’s regular time slot--opposite another new medical drama, NBC’s “ER"--Geiger is especially snotty to nurse Shutt and also crosses an ethical line, irking just about everyone. But ultimately all is resolved because he’s so brilliant.
Glimmers of good acting peep through this maze of melodrama. Yet “St. Elsewhere” practiced more interesting medicine, and Kelley’s Emmy-laden “Picket Fences” is bolder and more likable. More significant, so is “ER.” -Howard Rosenberg, The LA Times
"Hope" is very slick and very shiny, full of impassioned confrontations and noble utterances, all dreamed up by "Picket Fences" creator David E. Kelley. It also has a gimmick. Where "NYPD Blue" broke new ground in blunt language and partial nudity last season, "Hope" features more explicitly gory operating room footage than one usually sees on TV medical dramas.
Surgery, it seems, is not pretty.
But mostly, "Chicago Hope" is -- handsome and polished and stubbornly superficial. Kelley appears to be as interested in hospital politics as in hospital melodrama, so we are going to be getting lots of office combat between Mandy Patinkin, as a headstrong hotshot super-surgeon, and the hospital's board of directors, who in the premiere refuse him permission to separate Siamese twins. He does it anyway. -Tom Shales, Washington Post
Sometimes a critic falls on the wrong side of history. Like Ken Tucker who told viewers to watch Chicago Hope over ER:
I’d love to slag one and champion the other, and right now, I’m giving Hope the edge. But in a fall season with little quality, these are both solid dramas. Boasting a nerve-jangling pilot written by Crichton (which aired last week), ER has already captured the tension and horseplay among a group of young emergency-room doctors. The big ensemble cast includes Anthony Edwards, George Clooney, and Sherry Stringfield, and in its portrayal of novice docs under pressure, ER may remind you of St. Elsewhere, but with less of the quirkiness that made Elsewhere both brilliant and annoying. -Ken Tucker, EW
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