"All Over The Place": How ER Shaped My Spirituality
I’m not ashamed when I say I lied to get out of a church event early in 2009 just so I could get home in time for the two-hour ER series finale.
It was, honestly, a truer spiritual event, to celebrate and mourn the end of my favorite series of all time. I missed half of the pre-finale retrospective, but my friend Cayce told me all about it on my flip phone as I flew down Braddock Road in Fairfax, Virginia.
I’ve been tweeting at Netflix for well over two years now to carry the series, but in January, ER finally made its way onto online streaming via Hulu. I turned my TV on and it was just there, like an old, close friend you barely have to keep up with. Since I own all 15 seasons, I rewatched the series last year, and as I watched, I kept trying to put a finger on why ER is so consoling. On one hand, because the show is an emergency-centric drama, watching it is like being in control of unknown, potentially devastating situations from the outside. On the other, because the show invests so much in its character development, it makes the act of following these long-running storylines, in which you see or feel your own experience, formative and emotional.
I started watching ER when you still had to set up your VCR to record a show, and your TV had to be tuned to the channel you wanted it to record. I mostly remember this technology because my younger brother watched WWE: Smackdown, also on Thursday nights, and it was the cause of several huge fights (which I usually won).
The parts of a person that last–the parts that get refined by difficult life events–are often the most powerful parts of that person.
In 2005, when I was in college, there were too many people living in a house with one TV to reserve it. Thus, I instead read ER synopses online after every episode. I certainly watch a lot of television, but I definitely don’t keep up with shows like that anymore. Maybe I was so hooked on it because it wasn’t right at my fingertips (I had to wait until I bought season 12 to see it for the first time). Or maybe it’s because it addressed things about which I had no real knowledge at the time (war, HIV, racism in Chicago). Or because it was the first portrayal I saw of women on whom everyone depended too much, women who were also trying to manage their own complex lives. Truly, it’s impossible to talk about the characters of Abby Lockhart, Sam Taggart, or Kerry Weaver without couching the conversation in trauma and resiliency.
ER shows that the parts of a person that last–the parts that get refined by difficult life events–are often the most powerful parts of that person. Like real life, most of ER’s long-term character development is connected to trauma and struggle. We go through the entirety of Dr. Mark Greene’s cancer, divorce, parenting, and blended family struggles with him. When his cancer returns, we find out with him as he deals every day with realistic physical symptoms. Greene’s final moments, paired with Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwoʻole’s cover of “Over the Rainbow,” are an idealistic end to extended pain–but, for the viewer, a good and controllable end nonetheless. Watching John Carter read Greene’s final letter to the ER staff while Dr. Susan Lewis–Greene’s closest friend and (probably) best partner in life–listens; it’s a picture of communal and personal longing and influence that a lot of shows fail to reach.
Dr. Jing-Mei Debra Chen appears on and off for ten seasons of ER's run and brings a marked determination to the show as she navigates family dynamics, medical malpractice, pregnancy discrimination and more. Several times, Chen fights her way back into the ER after she leaves or is fired, due to unfair treatment or personal trauma. It is her tenacity, the sturdiest, longest thread in her character, that leaves a lasting impression.
ER was a vivid and messy example of navigating one’s own capability and responsibility in a shifting environment, as a woman and as an adult.
In some ways, this show is too big to write about. It is both reliable escapism and too applicable to be a straightforward fairytale. In an episode titled "The Healers", two paramedics run into a building engulfed in flames because a mother is screaming that her children are inside. Neither of them have the right equipment. By the end of the episode, one of them dies. When he passes, Raul is in a hospital full of paramedics who stayed with him–because being there felt more important than anything else.
Then there's the episode “The Book of Abby,” which chronicles Abby Lockhart’s last day. Abby is a pillar of the ER. In this episode, it’s clear she treats everything and everyone with a seriousness that only comes from the wisdom of healing yourself after long-term trauma. She hands an emotionally attached patient over to a new doctor; she affirms several struggling coworkers; she pushes back at a senior doctor, and then barges into a board meeting to advocate for a nurse with whom she’s had a tough relationship. Then she leaves without fanfare, as she reads Job 38 in voiceover–”Have the gates of death been shown to you?”–brilliantly defining Abby as a flawed and powerful presence.
ER was a vivid and messy example of navigating one’s own capability and responsibility in a shifting environment, as a woman and as an adult. Taking part in large sections of a character’s adult life like that, from the outside, has a sort of steadiness to it.
This is the spirituality I want: the spirituality of ER, a spirituality that pulls me toward resilience.
Warren Littlefield ran NBC Entertainment at the time Michael Crichton, still riding on his Jurassic Park popularity, introduced the idea for ER. To the Hollywood Reporter, Littlefield said, "We were intrigued, but we were admittedly a bit spooked… [here] we had this screenplay from a very hot author that was very long and dusty and all over the place. And yet at its core there was something quite remarkable about it. There were all of these heroic characters who were very flawed. There was a density to it that was dizzying, but it was memorable."
The stability of a long-running television drama comes from its density. Running from September 19, 1994 to April 2, 2009, ER incorporated so much that could happen in a person’s life. From career successes to kidnapping to death by helicopter (yes, seriously), there’s nothing ER didn’t cover.
It feels funny to admit this but ER is a consoling and powerful spiritual event because it is, as Littlefield said, “all over the place.” Sometimes I’ll be watching a movie and an actor will ping something in my mind. Nine out of ten times when I Google them, they played a patient or intern on ER. The first few chords of “Over the Rainbow” evoke the memory of one imperfect person’s ability to transcend the end of life. Scenes from Jing-Mei and Abby’s storylines show up in my brain all the time. What lasts of us? Which parts of us move with others through their lives? Are flaws the most powerful part of a person? This is the spirituality I want: one that pulls me toward resilience. Even if it doesn’t appear in the way I expect. Even if it means walking away to the sound of my own voice.