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St. Elsewhere – Season One (A TV on DVD Review)

St. Elsewhere

Season One (1982-1983) (20th Century Fox Home Video-2006)

If for any other reason, screen this St. Elsewhere DVD to see how far we've come in defining the term "good television."

For those of you old enough to remember how good this show was, you'll be amazed, disappointed – and heartbroken – at how badly it has aged.

It's the same old TV curse: a series that attempts some bold new moves is considered innovative and fresh. The format is admired, and then copied to death, for years to come. We then return to the original, to rejoice in its newness, and it now somehow looks dated, dopey, and deliberate. Not it's fault. But that's life on – and with – the tube.

Back in 1982, this (along with Hill Street Blues) was considered the top of the quality heap, and what a heap it was. Most of television then was filled with such dead air as Manimal, Knight Rider, The Love Boat, and The Facts of Life. Low-rated NBC, with nothing to lose, looked toward quality programming as a possible last resort at winning viewers (what a concept!).

That same season, they premiered Cheers, which would eventually become the top-rated sitcom on television (and also one of the longest running). However, its initial audience was embarrassingly small. NBC's new motto, however, was ballsy in the face of such heated competition: if it's good stick with it. America will eventually come around. And stick with it they did. And soon everybody knew their name. Could you imagine this kind of corporate courage today?

NBC was also encouraged by the smart, daring story lines and above-average, ensemble- cast acting of Hill Street Blues; St. Elsewhere was considered Hill Street Hospital, with the same lofty goals and fluid formula in mind. However, the show did not generate the same excitement among viewers (although critics raved). The show wound up with anemic, flat-lining ratings week after week as 1982 turned into 1983.

NBC, however, stood firm: stand by your quality programming. In retrospect, the courage to not wimp out and cancel a good thing was nothing short of a revelation. They actually put their money where their mouth was: they believed that quality was more important than ratings. As word got out about their noble cause, America came to pay their respects.

St. Elsewhere – the hospital and the series itself – was an underdog. The storyline seemed surefire: in working-class Boston, a scrappy hospital named St. Eligius (but nicknamed St. Elsewhere) did its best to operate despite an undeserved bad reputation, limited budgets, rough-and-tumble patients and lovesick staff. Everybody is constantly walking down hallways, in bad perms and knit ties.

Okay, but take another look today, and you are faced with a bad diagnosis: for all its pretention to "real-life drama," the storylines are pure soap opera, which means bad soap opera; the staff is way too pretty to be ultimately believable, the patients are sick but never truly look sick (only TV sick, with some pancake makeup applied). No spit. No vomit. No diarrhea. Not that we really want to see this, but if we are told that this is gritty and real, then let's really see it. Don't pull punches.

The occasional outbreaks of violence (remember, this is supposed to be a tough neighborhood) seems choreographed and over-rehearsed. The tough guys causing trouble are pure eighties style – like extras out of the Michael Jackson "Bad" video. To give you an idea of the degree of threat, Ray Liotta plays a street-gang member, and it feels like acting during every tense moment.

What's worse, with few exceptions, most actors on the show are busy gunning for their Emmy nominations, and it gets in the way (this still happens today. Take, for example the over-rated and never-funny Scrubs, in which every acTOR is acTING at every moment, to the point of distraction).

"HE IS NOT DEAD UNTIL I SAY HE'S DEAD," acts David Birney, as a doctor performing a tense, acting-oriented surgery. He'll pick up his Emmy on the way out, thank you.

The "Baston" accents come and go – some actors choose to use it, others don't.

Also, to show us intense symbolism, Norman Lloyd (no accent except Shakespearian) plays the grand old doc who is dying of liver cancer (odd irony: liver specialist gets liver cancer – there is a symbolic lesson in there somewhere). Still, he musters up the energy – TV style – to spout endless words of wisdom. Also, he is always bathed in an angelic light, be it from an overhead lightbulb or an X-ray screen. Whenever he appears on camera, this lighting trick never fails or even flickers to remind us that it's an ongoing gimmick; it's so overused that it almost becomes a running gag, like playing "Hi, Bob" with The Bob Newhart Show.

To prove (and prove again) that the show is young, hip, and groovy – initially, something we've never seen or heard before – we are treated to maverick surgeons who set their boomboxes right smack in the middle of the operating room. As they cut bone and make small talk, they groove to cover versions of "Born to Run" and "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" (although we're asked to believe these covers are "real.").

The old guard, of course, is caught off guard.

"What do you got today?" complains the snobby Dr. Craig, played by the always over-the-top (in a good way) William Daniels. "You got doctors with gym shoes."

Little did he know. This was the age before tattoos and nipple rings.

Yet Daniels is one of the true LOOK, I'M ACTING treasures – he's having a ball here, and you can't help but love it. Also, not so bad are Ellen Bry as the seen-it-all, frustrated nurse and – surprise – Howie Mandel, the only non-actor in the troupe who actually feels real and not like an actor.

You also can appreciate the rare underplaying – like the late Ed Flanders as the no-nonsense good guy, and a soft-spoken David Morse as the idealized, caring doctor you'd better hope you have when you're admitted. And yes, this is where Denzel Washington got his start, but he's underused in this first season.

Worst of all is an episode featuring heavy acting act-TORS James Coco and Doris Roberts, as a homeless couple acting like we like to see our homeless people act on TV: slightly dirty but ultimately lovable. It's all very similar to how we like our doctors on TV: to act and look like actors.

Even though Coco and Roberts are practically chewing the scenery, we are told in the DVD extra that they, and this particular episode, garnered about a zillion Emmys, and we are to rejoice in their acting chops and their touching story that feels so written and so acted.

More seemingly stale storylines abound (even though they were fresh as newly baked bread in their day): a Communist doctor visits (uh-oh); Dr. Craig's best friend is now transsexual and Craig must come to grips with this (slowly, of course); Tom Hulce has amnesia; Janis Page is a sexy flasher; a guy thinks he's a bird (and this actually becomes a story arc!). And the worst terrorist we are forced to deal with is – drum roll please – Tim Robbins.

Again, little did we know. If only real life was as well-acted and well-written as "real" drama.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2007 All rights reserved. Posted: October 8, 2007.


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