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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"ER: The Complete Ninth Season" DVD Review by porfle

"ER" used to be one of my favorite TV shows, but for some reason I gradually stopped watching it along with just about everything else on network TV. Years went by, different actors and characters came and went, and I pretty much forgot about it.

Now, with the release of the 6-disc, 22-episode DVD collection "ER: The Complete Ninth Season", I've been able to catch up with "ER" and find out all over again why this is one of the best TV shows ever produced. Many of the old main characters I remembered are gone, but the ones that replaced them are just as good in their own way, always three-dimensional and displaying both noble qualities and human failings. The stories remain incredibly fast-paced, emotionally involving, occasionally very funny, and consistently surprising.

Of the old cast, I miss Eriq La Salle's abrasive Dr. Benton most of all, because I liked the way he was always riding callow intern Carter (Noah Wylie). Now, Carter's the experienced old pro and Sharif Atkins is the new guy, Gallant. George Clooney's smarmy pediatrician Dr. Doug Ross has been replaced by Goran Visnjic as Dr. Luka Kovac, a soulful Croatian immigrant whose effortless charm with women often gets him into trouble.

Other welcome additions to the cast since I last watched the show are Maura Tierney as Carter's girlfriend and head nurse Abby Lockhart, Mekhi Phifer as Dr. Gregory Pratt, Ming-Na as Dr. Jing-Mei Chen, Leslie Bibb as intern Erin Harkins, and Paul McCrane (immortalized by his role in 1987's ROBOCOP) as supremely arrogant surgeon Dr. Robert Romano.

The lovely Alex Kingston's Dr. Elizabeth Corday is still around, having just returned from London, where it seems her years of Americanization now cause her to be regarded as an outsider in her native country. Also still on staff is Sherry Stringfield's down-to-earth Dr. Susan Lewis. But my favorite character of all is and has always been Laura Innes as Dr. Kerry Weaver. I was surprised to find that Dr. Weaver is now an out-of-the-closet lesbian trying to have a child with her partner, a female firefighter named Sandy (Lisa Vidal). Weaver's pregnancy, along with her fiercely competitive run-ins with Dr. Romano, are fodder for some intense storylines. It's also apparent that, due to her frank and curtly efficient manner, Dr. Weaver is still just as disliked and misunderstood by her co-workers as ever, which has always gained her my sympathy. I find her to be the most complex and fascinating character on the show.

Any doubts I had about the level of quality this series had maintained through its ninth season were put to rest with the first episode in the set, "Chaos Theory", which begins with Chicago's County General Hospital in the midst of a virulent monkeypox epidemic that forces the evacuation of patients and the quarantine of much of the staff. While doctors are on the roof frantically loading patients onto helicopters, something so utterly unexpected and shocking happens (involving a rotor blade) that I couldn't believe my eyes. After that, this show definitely had my full attention once again.

One episode after another reaches a breakneck pace early on and manages to sustain it till the end. The interpersonal relationships between the characters are interesting and quirky, and are integrated into the action in such a way that they rarely slow down the foreward momentum. Often the show hits the ground running from the fade-in, with rapidly intercutting storylines, intensely dramatic situations, and smart dialogue that snaps, crackles, and pops. And when it does slow down to linger over something particularly dramatic, the stylish direction and compelling performances often combine to produce some exquisitely memorable moments.

The guest cast is filled with so many familiar faces that I often end up wracking my brain trying to identify them. Of course, there are also quite a few noteworthy star turns as well. Don Cheadle is extremely moving as Paul Nathan, a middle-aged intern whose dream of being a doctor is severely compromised by his advancing Parkinson's Disease. Sally Field appears in several episodes as Abby Lockhart's bipolar mother, Maggie. Other outstanding guests include Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, Ed Asner, Patrick Fugit, Jeffrey DeMunn, and Bruce Weitz.

The picture is presented in matted widescreen format. Image and sound quality are fine. Extras include deleted scenes for almost all episodes, a seven-minute gag reel, and optional subtitles which are a great help whenever all that complicated med-speak is flying fast and furious. The packaging and menus are nicely designed.

I'm glad I got to reacquaint myself with this show because it is quite simply one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of dramatic television. Whether you're a long-time resident of County General Hospital or just an intern, "ER: The Complete Ninth Season" should keep you on your entertainment meds for quite some time.

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