David Zabel has been writing for “ER” for seven years and has risen to the rank of showrunner. Other than John Wells and medical consultant-turned-writer Joe Sachs, no writer has more experience with the doctors of County General.
But there was a time, back in the drama’s eighth season, when Zabel was a rookie “ER” writer, and he quickly discovered the biggest pitfall in writing for such a long-running series.
“The painful part of being a new writer on ‘ER,'” Zabel explains, “is that you come on with all these great ideas, and you find out we’ve already done them. In some cases, you’ll pitch what you think is a great idea for a storyline and they’ll go, ‘Oh, we did that in season two, and we hit it again in season six — and then we did it again in season 10. I think season six was the best of the three.'”
It’s simple math: Over the past 14 years, there have been 300 episodes of “ER,” with an average of six stories per episode. Take one setting like an emergency room, and you’re not going to find 1,800 completely unique plots.
“We try our hardest to be original,” says Zabel, “but the truth is, in a real ER, you get similar kinds of cases over time. We try to embrace the distinctions of different characters going through similar storylines.”
In that, the series’ revolving cast door has been a boon.
Maura Tierney is the only remaining regular who predates Zabel’s tenure, and the constant influx of new faces allows the writers to show how different people — say, Neela Rasgotra vs. Peter Benton — respond to the same situations.
Zabel and Sachs try, with the help of researchers, to avoid coming too close to earlier plotlines. Most of the time, they succeed.
“We’ve done so many episodes that there are times where I forget,” Zabel says. “There are gaps in my own knowledge where we think we’re doing a great story, and then we get a letter saying, ‘In season two, episode seven, there was a very similar story.’ No one in the room will have remembered it, but some longtime fan spots it.”
The show used to have a tradition of doing one or two big disaster episodes each year, but eventually, they ran out of vehicles to crash.
“We haven’t done (a disaster show) in a while,” says Zabel, “and that’s conscious. We got to the point where we were just pushing credibility too much. It started to seem not real.”
To keep things real and fresh, Zabel draws on the experience of actual ER doctors and nurses.
“Every year we have a series of evenings called Nurses Night, Interns Night and Residents Night,” explains Zabel. “Basically we get six or seven or eight of those people around a table and we give them Chinese food and pizza and say, ‘Tell us some stories about working in an emergency room.’ We get a lot of valuable story — not so much the big stories but the atmosphere and the texture.”
Before the writers strike began, Wells had been talking with NBC about the idea of doing one more season to give the series a proper finish.
“We think the show deserves and would be well-served creatively and in audience response with a year that was built as the final season of ‘ER,'” says Zabel, who has a few ideas in mind for that potential final season — most of them tributes to the show’s long history.
An upcoming story arc this season will feature the return of Gloria Reuben’s Jeannie Boulet, and Zabel would like to revisit other classic characters, if possible.
“I would love to hit Clooney and (Julianna) Margulies, the Hathaway-Ross story again. I think there’s a story to tell about how they’re doing after all these years together. I think there’s a cool story about Mark Greene’s daughter. It would be really hard to do that in the potential nine episodes we have remaining.”
And in between those potential blasts from the past, Zabel isn’t worried about coming up with other stories to fill out a 15th season, even if some of them echo what’s come before.
“We know there can be similarities, but when you do a story about a guy with an MI (heart attack), it doesn’t mean you can never do another guy with an MI.”