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A break in NBC's backbone?

Losing a key ER player could threaten the network's Thursday night domination. The cast believes it has plenty of firepower to keep the show on course.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 26, 2002


BURBANK, Calif. -- You may have seen her flash that look 1,000 times before while playing passionate, willful British surgeon Dr. Elizabeth Corday on NBC's popular medical drama, ER.

Still, when Alex Kingston fixes that angry gaze on you in person, it's startling -- like a dash of cold water in a warm bath.
photo
[NBC photos]
Alex Kingston begins her sixth season as Dr. Elizabeth Corday. Now her character is a widow and working mother with an infant daughter.

The look came during a break in filming as a reporter managed to ask the same question three ways: How are you going to cope, now that the show's backbone is out the door?

"I have a feeling a lot of people are expecting us to fail," said Kingston, exasperated, as she considered the departure of founding star Anthony Edwards in May. His character, Dr. Mark Greene, died of a brain tumor.

"We're constantly being questioned about what's going to happen now that Greene is gone," she continued. "It's like everyone wants to spell doom and gloom . . . We're constantly having to justify ourselves. And I don't think we need to."

Perhaps. But even one of the show's three executive producers, Jack Orman, agrees that ER has reached a crossroads.

High-profile actors George Clooney and Julianna Margulies left the show in years past. But neither embodied the show's sensibilities as did Edwards' supremely skilled Dr. Greene, or offered the unpredictable, electric energy of Eriq LaSalle's prickly Dr. Peter Benton.

Though last week's rebroadcast of May's season finale reversed the trend, ratings for reruns of ER have dipped far enough that the CBS forensic drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation surpassed the series as TV's most-watched drama last season.

The backbone of NBC's "Must See TV" lineup is looking vulnerable, especially with CBS's scheduling a near-perfect show to follow CSI, the missing-persons drama Without a Trace, at 10 p.m. Thursday.

Still, the party line at ER central is that the show can survive any character's departure.

"It feels to me like we reach a crossroads every year," said Orman, a writer on the show since 1996.

"But the other side of that is the opportunity to explore new characters."

Even competitors acknowledge that predicting the demise of ER this season is likely premature. "ER has proved to be very strong," said Les Moonves, president and CEO of CBS. "At various points along the way, I thought, 'Okay, when Clooney leaves, they'll be hurting.' They weren't. 'When Juliana leaves, they'll be hurting.' They weren't. They've done pretty well."

Reconstructing Corday

On the day Kingston returned for her first day of work at Warner Bros. Studios, the atmosphere was brisk and professional, if a little off-balance.

That's mostly because the work on the balmy July morning involved a new set: the clean, antiseptic hospital rooms that soon will be featured on ER executive producer John Wells' new CBS show, Presidio Med.

When that show cranks up production, its sleekly modern offices and efficient-looking patient rooms will mimic a large San Francisco hospital. But on this day, they are portraying a facility in London, where Dr. Corday flees after the death of her husband, Dr. Greene.

Prickly director Jonathan Kaplan, a man of little patience and less tact, has already exploded over moving a bed from one room to another. "They designed a set for a hospital where the beds don't fit through the doors. . . . No wonder (Warner Bros. owner) AOL Time Warner's in the tank," he cracked.

Like the character she plays, Kingston seemed unfazed as she nailed a scene in which Corday tweaks a superior for requiring an inordinate amount of extra information to treat a patient.

In a brief break between takes, she says she's missed the confidence and independence that initially marked Corday's personality.

"Six months into the season last year, it started to go from bad to worse (for Corday). . . . Whenever I got another script, it was, 'Oh, no, this is happening,' " said Kingston of her character, who briefly split with Greene when his teen daughter nearly killed their baby but returned when she learned his brain tumor had resurfaced.

"In a way, I think we need to find an in-between ground, where you see her old spunkiness but you can believe this is a woman who has gone through a lot."

And don't suggest Corday could use a new love interest. "For me, it would be enough to see how Corday survives as a single, working mother . . . something many women have to deal with every day. And it's a subject we don't see addressed very often on television."

Rumors and truths

On the other side of Warner Bros.' sprawling lot sits the sets familiar to ER fans: the wide Admit Desk (parts can be moved quickly to allow for the show's trademark Steadicam shots); the gritty staff break room and operating areas; chief of staff Dr. Robert "Rocket" Romano's tiny office.

Perhaps most impressive is the huge, outdoor set that replicates the area outside the emergency room doors, including facades of the apartment buildings around the hospital, the concrete drive leading to the doors, the nearby elevated train track and stop, and the restaurant/hangout Doc Magoo's, with overhead cabling and hoses to simulate rain, snow or nighttime environs.

For an ER fan, the set provides a treasure trove of clues about upcoming story lines. In a small tray behind a bank of camera monitors, for example, sits an amazingly lifelike rubber reproduction of a severed arm, complete with the brace surgeons often use to reattach separated limbs.

A passing crew member pointed out that the arm belongs to a prominent cast member, no name revealed, who loses the limb in a helicopter accident.

Orman won't comment on the helicopter incident, or rumors that Goran Visnjic's Dr. Luka Kovach turns into a first-class womanizer, or that ex-Philly star Tom Everett Scott is joining the cast as nurse Abby Lockhart's brother (future plot lines featured on NBC's media Web site confirm this).

Likewise, Orman is mum on press quotes from Noah Wyle, whose Dr. John Carter character is expected to become the show's center, or that Wells plans to shutter ER after 10 seasons.

What Orman will say: Sally Field will reprise her role as Lockhart's bipolar mother, and Don Cheadle (Ocean's Eleven, Traffic) will join the cast during November "sweeps" as a medical student on a surgical internship.

Also, Carter "hooks up" romantically with Maura Tierney's nurse Lockhart -- finally. Tonight's episode concludes May's cliffhanger in which a child entered the hospital infected with smallpox, forcing health officials to quarantine the E.R.

New stories

photo
Mekhi Phifer is promoted to full-time cast member as intern Dr. Gregory Pratt. His personal life also will be delved into more.

Mekhi Phifer (O, Soul Food) also joins the cast full time, as headstrong intern Dr. Gregory Pratt. At times, it seems the writers have taken the space occupied by LaSalle's Benton and divided it between Dr. Pratt and Sharif Atkins' idealistic medical student, Michael Gallant.

Phifer doesn't see it that way. "I don't see any resemblance to Benton, and I don't feel I was (hired) to replace Eriq LaSalle," he said. "One of the things I love about this part is that I get to be edgy and unpredictable. I wanted to prove to myself and anyone in doubt that I could handle this role. . . . And at the end of the first day, they knew I could do it."

Pratt gets more screen time this season, ticking off co-workers by resuscitating a patent pronounced dead and revealing the existence of a developmentally disabled brother. It's the kind of role Phifer loves: a part that presents an unexpected image of a young black man.

"I turn down so much stuff . . . all the stuff that perpetuates a fake stereotype," said Phifer, a gifted electrical engineering student who had a record deal as a rap artist when he accompanied a cousin to an open casting call for Spike Lee's 1995 film Clockers and won a part.

"So many (black actors) I hear complaining about getting good parts don't do good work when they are working," he said. "I don't want to hear you complaining when I saw your last three movies and you were either the same person, or some clown that I couldn't respect."

Rather than worry about departed actors, Orman said his biggest concern is "searching for those stories we haven't told yet. We chew through eight or nine big medical story arcs in each season, and there's a limited amount of things emergency doctors can do."

The producer also shrugs off the current TV industry philosophy that such involved characters and story lines, playing out over several episodes, makes ER vulnerable. (CSI, in contrast, resolves most story lines in one episode, making it easier to air repeats and get new fans.)

"By the end of the first season, (producers) here realized they needed to get an audience invested in these characters," he said. "If you want to make appointment TV, you have to give (viewers) the feeling if they don't show up, they're going to miss something."

AT A GLANCE

ER begins its ninth season at 10 tonight on WFLA-Ch. 8.

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