Yes, it was a stunt. Yes, it was a little contrived. But as contrived stunts go, the ballyhooed live season premiere of "ER" was a pretty impressive, oft-compelling one, and an hour that proved difficult to ignore for 45% of TV-watching America. That's not quite Super Bowl number territory, but it's about triple "Chicago Hope" territory. Of course, those who watched either of the two separate productions (one for eastern half of the U.S., one for the West) to find performer misbehavior and/or unintended gaffes went away largely disappointed. George Clooney never turned to the camera to declare, "Death to the paparazzi!" Not that there was ever much chance of that happening, any more than there would have been in a stage play, of which this resembled.

Having watched both editions of the “ER” gimmick, there were few obvious distinguishing differences between the two. It’s been variously pointed out that a scene in which gang members brawl in the ER showed the most menacing homeboy tripping, delaying his punchout of a cameraman to end the scene during the first production. During the second, a nurse muffed her line, quickly recovering. And a scene with a baby elicited crying the first time and was quiet the next.

That was about it. So much for, “It’s live, so anything can happen!” That’s right. It could even go — imagine this — as planned! I’ll give you a moment here to catch your breath.

On the other hand, we were treated to the spectacle of TV’s first-ever live capturing of a human vomiting on cue. Though that may not wind up being Thomas Schlamme’s proudest moment as a director, he can hold his head high for doing a superb job here in keeping everybody on his mark and in making choreography out of the reigning chaos typical of “ER.”

The hour, titled “Ambush,” was in itself reasonably flub-proof, given that Carol Flint’s script carried the action to a different level. That is, it pit the regular “ER” crew against an invasive, sometimes surly documentary video crew purportedly making a special on emergency room medicine.

This, of course, gave the show’s producers the ultimate out. The performers could acknowledge the camera’s presence without ruining the mood. Cop-out though it may have been, it — and the show’s video texture as a whole — carried an oddly riveting quality. Besides Schlamme, the actors deserve much of the credit for overcoming the gimmick, particularly the splendid Anthony Edwards (on whose shoulders the episode invariably rested).

Edwards’ Dr. Mark Greene is still traumatized by his having been brutally attacked toward the end of last season, and the mock-doc cameras captured his continued angst. There were even a few points on Thursday when you forgot this was a stunt, and that was particularly true when Edwards commanded the stage.

Forgetting the fact this was an “ER” that looked and sounded like no other (much of the “music” was provided by an annoying guy striking any available surface for timpani), it played fairly typically. There were comic moments, tragic moments, ironic moments. An AIDS patient bled. A sweet old man died. A new doctor checked in amidst the turmoil. Everyone was a little bit jumpy.

But this was no regular week, of course. No one pretended that it was. Now that the big live “ER” premiere is just another piece of tape, it’s heartening to remember that TV has better ways of making its programs these days.

Yet as a ride into the past, this wasn’t really so bumpy after all.

ER: Ambush

Thurs. (25), 10-11 p.m., NBC

Production

Shot live in Burbank by Constant C Productions and Amblin Television in association with Warner Bros. TV. Executive producers, Michael Crichton, John Wells, Lydia Woodward, Carol Flint; co-executive producers, Christopher Chulack, Walon Green; producers, Near Baer, Lance Gentile; live producer, Tom Park; director, Thomas Schlamme; writer, Flint;

Crew

director of photography, Richard Thorpe; music, Martin Davich; sound, Lowell Harris; casting, John Levey.

Cast

Cast: Anthony Edwards, George Clooney, Noah Wyle, Julianna Margulies, Gloria Reuben, Laura Innes, Maria Bello, Alex Kingston, Eriq La Salle, William H. Macy.

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