Water-cooler skeins

Back in 1994, skeptics were starting to write obits for network television when, almost out of nowhere, an unassuming medical drama appeared that pumped new life into the entire medium: “ER.”

Bowing at the same time as another new medical hour — David E. Kelley’s much hyped (and better-reviewed) “Chicago Hope” — few industry insiders expected “ER” to last very long. Even NBC execs were wary of the Warner Bros. TV-produced show from creator Michael Crichton. Its fast edits, nonstop medical jargon and cast of unknowns didn’t seem like a recipe for success.

“We were just hoping we’d last the season,” says “ER” exec producer John Wells. “When you read so many times that you’re likely to be blown out of the water, you just try to do your best. No one was more surprised than us that it worked.”

“ER” didn’t just work — it blazed its way across American pop culture like a comet.

Within weeks of its Sept. 19 debut, the series was attracting nearly 40% of all viewers watching TV Thursdays at 10 p.m. NBC execs giddily called ratings hotlines every Friday to see how high the numbers could soar.

Rather than feeling alienated by the heavy dose of doc speak, viewers were captivated by the show’s realism and honesty in dealing with complex medical issues. Previous medical dramas had focused almost exclusively on patient victories; “ER” showed doctors who weren’t always perfect and patients who died.

That human element may ultimately serve as the explanation for “ER’s” enduring success.

“The way we sold the show (to NBC) still holds true,” Wells says. “If your brother or sister or mother or father were in a car accident and put in an ambulance, when the doors to that hospital opened up, the faces you’d want to see taking care of them were the people on the show.”

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