VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 3

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 3

Dave Bunting Jr.’s video essay on Season 3 of Breaking Bad opens with time-lapse landscapes, which are de rigueur establishing shots in TV these days. Here, though, they are uniquely awe-inspiring, in part for their exotic nature (most of us watching the show spend our lives in urban and suburban environments nowhere near mesas, plateaus, or even cacti), and in part for how they seem to breathe life into everything—from churning clouds, to rocks whose shapely silhouettes (even in their stillness) manage to suggest personalities, to cityscapes that pop colorfully to life as darkness descends upon them. Vince Gilligan & Co.’s ground-breaking TV series is filmed so as to be as suggestive—as potentially rich with meaning—as possible.

Breaking Bad’s extended shots also fuck with our sense of scale: The vehicles popping in and out of the gas station move with the speed and directness of hummingbirds or bees. Wendy the meth whore flits into and out of the frame like a fly. Contrast this with the extreme close-up of the actual fly that opens Season 3, Episode 10 (“Fly”), a close-up held long enough to give that creature the weight and ominous presence of a significant carrier of meaning. We expect flies to carry disease, of course, not meaning. But in Breaking Bad the two have been flattened together, a la William Burroughs’ statement that language = virus.

Season 3, Episode 1 (“No Mas”) starts with a frame filled with what feel like toxic-colored clouds, then a pan down to reveal a Mexican landscape, moon-like or possibly even post-apocalyptic in its apparent desolation. Things only get weirder—more “foreign”—as we begin to see first one older man, then several men and women of various ages crawling on their elbows and knees through the dusty streets of a remote village. The crawlers are soon joined by two men (revealed later to be “the cousins”) who wear similar deep mauve shirts, gray suits and cowboy boots with silver skull tips. Both men are bald and sport a hint of facial hair—a goatee or maybe (the bottom) half of a goatee.

This dialog-less opening unfolds for a full four minutes—an eternity in television time—as the cousins crawl their way to a shack filled with burning candles and other religious and pseudo-religious detritus, leaving an offering of money and lighting a candle of their own before silently praying to Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death. One of them tacks the object of their prayers to the wall: A crudely rendered but recognizable portrait of Walter White in hat, shades and moustache (the upper half of the full goatee he’ll sport this season). As the plot plays out, the cousins cross the U.S.-Mexico border in order to find and axe-murder Walter, whom they deem responsible for the death of one of their relatives, but are redirected by Gus and wind up seriously injuring Walter’s brother-in-law Hank.

Everything in Season 3 seems to pivot on acts of communication—on the successful or unsuccessful transference of meaning—right up to the final two minutes of episode 13 (“Full Measure”), when Gale’s cell phone begins buzzing frantically on a haphazard pile of CDs. It’s Mike, calling to warn Gale, who can’t hear it over Zhang Fan’s 1938 shidaiqu hit “Flying over the Court.” Because Gale misses Mike’s warning, he opens the front door, allowing Jesse to shoot him in the head before the screen goes black and the season-end credits roll.

It’s probably no accident that Season 3 begins and ends with these plot-propelling examples of foreign exotica. After all, the disease that sets all of Breaking Bad’s story into motion—lung cancer—is the result of exposure to foreign substance (in Walter’s case, most likely radon or asbestos, since he was never a smoker). And it is, in fact, “the foreign”—a fly—that sets Walter off on the most philosophical monologue of the series.

In Episode 10, after becoming deeply concerned when the meth yield isn’t, in his own words, “adding up,” Walter becomes first distracted by and finally obsessed with a fly that somehow gets into the sterile environment of the lab, threatening to contaminate his 99+% pure blue meth. After many hours and countless unsuccessful attempts (including the introduction of what Walter calls “positive pressure”) to kill the allusive insect, Walter reveals to Jesse that, on the night of Jane’s death, he had randomly met her father in a bar.

“The universe is random,” Walter says. “It’s not inevitable. It’s simple chaos. It’s subatomic particles in an endless collision. That’s what science teaches us. But what is this saying? What is it telling us when, on the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who’s having a drink with him?”

What Walter fails to confess is that he was at least in part responsible for Jane’s death—which is, of course, why he’s now agonizing over it—that, and the randomness of running into her father the same night. The universe, Walter says, is trying to tell him something—but, what? And what does it mean, what horrific truth is revealed, if and when things, finally, “add up”?

Gary Sullivan’s poetry and comics have been widely published and anthologized, in everything from Poetry Magazine and The Wall Street Journal to The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry (2nd Edition, forthcoming). Everyone Has a Mouth, a
selection of his translations of poetry by the Austrian schizophrenic
Ernst Herbeck, was recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse. He lives
in Astoria, Queens, where he maintains, a music blog devoted to treasures found in immigrant-run bodegas in New York City.

Why FX’s THE AMERICANS May Feature the Most Compelling Romance on TV

Why FX’s THE AMERICANS May Feature the Most Compelling Romance on TV

nullThe rise of the antihero in American dramatic television has been nearly fifteen years in the making. Since Tony Soprano revealed a gangster as touching as he was menacing in 1999 (those ducks!), television has introduced programming with a level of thematic and ethical complexity at a consistency never before achieved in the medium. A glimpse at the major award circuit in the past half-decade reveals not only a critical interest in this turn, but a popular one, as well. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and most recently, Homeland are just three shows that have achieved widespread recognition for their presentation of morally compromised protagonists.

nullFX, known for its “There is no Box” brand, is no stranger to this breed of conflicted character. Its breakthrough program, The Shield, was a benchmark in the era of the antihero, considered by many to be an answer to HBO’s oft-discussed flagship. But where Tony Soprano was already a ringleader in an entrenched system of corruption, Vic Mackey was a crime-fighter, one of the good guys. Yet, in his Machiavellian lust to thwart baddies, we witness him torture, blackmail, plant evidence, and murder. In that sense, The Shield can be seen to usher in what has become the current antihero paradigm: where moral ambiguity abounds in spaces beyond the expected arenas of gangsters and thugs—among doctors and high school teachers, ordinary people.

It’s fitting, then, that FX is the first network to attempt a redirection of this trend in its newest drama, The Americans. Though it is as flush with moral ambiguity as its predecessors, Joe Weisberg’s creation offers an altogether different breed of protagonist. Some antihero dramas attempt to portray the slow degradation of character (Breaking Bad), others show us how obsession deepens madness (Dexter, Homeland), and others still allow the vicarious experience of power and its consequences (Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire). What separates The Americans is its foregrounding of the simplest device in the history of narrative: love. In effect, The Americans is an extended remarriage plot. Sure, it’s replete with the trappings of espionage, but all the mad chases, brutality, and political intrigue function in service of its romantic core. What leaves viewers clinging to their armrests in these moments of pulpy thrill is the underlying terror that, at any moment, the fledgling relationship between protagonists Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), will suffer a blow—whether physically, emotionally, or both—that it cannot survive.

nullDiscussion of The Americans, thus far, has been largely centered around its relation to Showtime’s Homeland. However, the shows bear little resemblance to each other beyond their basic conversation about what it means to be a double agent, or, in a broader sense, to lead a double life. Homeland is sparked and sustained by a central terrorist plot. The romance that springs up between Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison and Damian Lewis’s Nicholas Brody is, if a bit predictable, a delectable garnish. Specific motives correlate to known and desired effects (how will sniffing out a new piece of information help Carrie & Co. develop more effective counterterrorist responses?), and these propel the show. But neither Elizabeth nor Philip has a specific agenda—in typical Cold War style, there is no clear, overarching object—so the long-form conflict that emerges is largely character-driven, supplemented by action.

In this way, The Americans bears a closer likeness to HBO’s Deadwood, a show more interested in how communities are constructed than in marinating in its own conceits. But where Deadwood’s magic lay in its expansive cast, The Americans’ charm is in its limited focus; there’s something intoxicating about its tight ecosystem of quiet moments, its emphasis on the accumulation of gestures in meaning-making. If anything, a discussion of lineage is important here in a global sense; there’s a certain degree of predictability to any show, but after over a decade’s worth of writers willing to put their darlings through the ringer, we know better than to let ourselves get comfortable when things appear to go well for Mr. and Mrs. Jennings. In the episodes following the emotional high of the pilot’s climax, we see the two confront past and present infidelities (Philip’s sexual manipulation of the assistant to the undersecretary of Defense to ascertain information, Elizabeth dealing with her years-long love affair with a “co-worker”), professional dilemmas that generate disputes that feel more personal than political (the Reagan assassination attempt is used to great effect here in underscoring their differing loyalties), as well as a new boss (played by Margo Martindale) who informs them that work is about to become even more life-threatening than it already was.

nullA romance is only as good as its obstacles, and, as aforementioned, we find no shortage of obstacles in The Americans. If anything, the degree of coincidence incorporated in creating these barriers has been, for some viewers, the show’s primary shortcoming. But when coincidence deepens conflict instead of helping to resolve it—imbuing a certain degree of inevitability rather than deus ex machina—most are quick to forgive. So, when CIA agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich’s savvier analog to Breaking Bad’s Hank) moves down the street from the Jenningses, we’re more interested in the “loaded gun” stress this generates than decrying its improbability. In the end, we don’t want Philip and Elizabeth to have an easy go until they’ve really earned it, and we’re rewarded amply for our masochism.

Repression and the unspoken form the dramatic fulcrum of The Americans. Much in the way that 1960s gender roles cast character conflict in Mad Men, the Jenningses’ employment as spies operates as a sort of de facto silencer. Like all effective period dramas, this speaks both to the ethos of the 1980s—the carefully constructed veneer of safety in spite of deep-rooted anxieties—and to the current post-9/11 zeitgeist. So, when Philip approaches Elizabeth about defecting to America in the pilot, we realize that multiple layers of psychological maneuvering are afoot. Though they’ve duped everyone around them—their children included—they’ve always known that their marriage is just a vehicle for their true marriage to the KGB; it’s their cover in American suburbia. The moment it gets in the way of a mission is the moment it loses efficacy. As such, when Philip pushes for defection, Elizabeth is not only confronted with deciphering his intentions—he could be on a private mission from headquarters intended to test her loyalty—but navigating the undercurrent of his now apparent feelings for her (particularly in light of the emotional distance she’s cultivated with anything related to her American life), how to respond to his eroding patriotism (her training would dictate she report him to headquarters), what this dichotomy will mean for them, and lastly, having been pitted between the two most important things in her life, negotiating her own feelings for Philip.

Moments like this are hardly isolated. In some way or another, paranoia looms behind every action taken, every choice made. Unlike the usual tropes of romance, Philip and Elizabeth already have all the physical manifestations of domestic bliss: the house, the car, the kids. They’re older. They’ve lived past the age of youthful naivety and impulse, and, because of their work, they understand the fragility of life. At the same time, these are also two people who made the decision to dedicate their lives to country as teenagers—not to mention the fact that they’ve spent years kidnapping and murdering—and their emotional self-awareness suffers commensurately. Their silence isn’t just professional. Love necessitates vulnerability, and, particularly for Elizabeth, whose loyalty to “the cause” has been unflinching, this is an unbearable idea.

nullWhich maybe helps explain why the romantic moments we see unfold here are more touching than just about anything else on television. The premium channels seem to have adopted a per-episode sex quota, and meanwhile, The Americans encapsulates passion in handholding, meaningful looks, and veiled apologies. And the moments of spillover, whether pronounced or Victorian, are downright gut-wrenching. We know what’s at risk, what makes it so difficult for them. Once we understand the kind of traumas (emotional, physical, self-inflicted) Elizabeth has suffered, for instance, no amount of nudity, one night stands, or marital harmony elsewhere can better capture our affections than when, in spite of a seeming incapacity for tenderness, she reaches out and puts her hands on Philip’s shoulders. Sometimes, these romantic moments converge with violence, as in the pilot’s climax, and the effect is so powerful that it manages to transform Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” into something anthemic, hard-hitting, and steamy.

If, under the lens of perspective, we suspend the remnants of latent anti-Communism, we come to realize that Philip and Elizabeth may in fact be the worst antiheroes ever written insofar as being antithetical to heroism. That may sound semantic, but the pair is principled, in some respects similar to Vic Mackey. But unlike Mackey, it is absolutely clear that neither relishes in harming others; even if their capacities for love and violence can seem disturbing at times, we also see an underlying desire to do good. In a sense, this show lets us eat our proverbial cake: we get the grime and complex ethical scenarios, but we can root for our heroes the way we might those in classical epics.
As we’ve witnessed over the past fourteen years, television is an incredible medium for portraying slow deterioration. But The Americans reveals that television is equally capable of showing the opposite: the precarious steps we take to build community, how we maintain in the face of obstruction, and how we teach ourselves to love and be made vulnerable in a world that knows exactly how to exploit and destroy us. In the course of Breaking Bad, Walter White becomes the self he is apparently always capable of being, and we watch how his obsessive pursuit of power brings his whole life—and with it, any true sense of fulfillment—crumbling around him. In The Americans, though, Philip and Elizabeth begin from a place of alienation and move toward redemption, just as their world becomes an even more dangerous place.

The best art is that which both imitates life and helps us to escape it. Within exotic, exciting, and fantastical contexts, we still crave reflections of ourselves and the worlds we inhabit. The Americans is a show about dealing with the consequences of the choices made in youth, about trusting intuition and loving in spite of fear, about accepting that what we love most in each other is also what we can come to most hate or fear. Even for those of us not steeped in a paranoid existence, the world can at times feel like a hard, lonely place. With the inescapability of our mortality, the best we can hope for is true human connection while we still have time for it. That kind of redemption, which The Americans seeks to offer, is a rare beacon—something, without realizing it, that we’ve been desperately waiting to see.

Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American
Experimental Writing
(Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison,

The Revolution Was Televised: The Conversation

The Revolution Was Televised: The Conversation


I worked with television critic Alan Sepinwall at the Star-Ledger of Newark for nine years, 1997-2006. We shared the TV beat together throughout that period, writing reviews and features, and collaborating on a daily column of news and notes titled "All TV." The column was topped with a dual mugshot, photoshopped in a way that made it look as though two heads were growing from the same neck. Some colleagues and a few readers referred to that image as "The Two-Headed Beast," and as it turned out, the description referred to more than the mugshot. We truly were a team, and we yakked so much across our cubicle desks that we got shushed by everyone in the newsroom at one point or another. Most of the conversations were about the innovative things we were seeing on television during that fertile period, which brought forth The Sopranos (filmed right there in the Garden State!) as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Oz, Lost, Deadwood, The Wire, and other dramas that are now recognized as milestones in the medium's artistic development. 

nullAlan has chronicled that heady era in his new book The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever. It's an impressive piece of work, and I'd think so even if I didn't know and like the author. A combination critical exegesis and oral history of the late '90s and early 21st century, it puts a frame around an era whose aesthetic aftershocks are still being felt and understood. 

I originally set out to do a brief Q&A with Alan, but as anybody who's ever had the misfortune of sitting next to us in a newsroom can tell you, we're a couple of Chatty Cathies. The conversation ran nearly an hour. It has many digressions and tales-out-of-school, and a bit of playful teasing, yet somehow it managed to touch on the main themes and subjects of his book. I've reproduced our talk below, with some minor edits and omissions for clarity. — Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt: What are the factors that contributed to the existence of the dramas you describe in this book?

Alan: Cable was a big part of it—the fact that cable started looking to do more original programming. You remember when you were on the TV beat with me at the Star-Ledger, there were the major broadcast networks. There were UPN and the WB, sort of. And that was it.

And then HBO decided, “All right, we’re gonna get serious about this, and not just do one or two comedies a year.” And they became successful at it, and then others started imitating that. And at the same time, the audience started to really splinter, because there were so many viewing options, and it became easier to justify a show that does three or four million viewers a week.

Matt: How did it become easier for programmers to justify that? How did the economics work for them?

Alan: The idea is, if every show on the network is being watched by twenty million people or more, and you do a few shows that are only drawing three million, that’s harder [to justify], whereas that’s a good number for a cable network if the show is cheaper. A show like The Shield cost a lot less than, say, Nash Bridges did. That was part of it.

But there was also the fact that, as viewership overall started coming down, having three to six million viewers started to look a lot better than it might have in the days of Dallas.

Matt: Speaking of the days of Dallas, I’ve recently been revisiting some of the great shows, particularly dramas, from the ‘80s, such as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere and Moonlighting, which was a show that, week to week, was as deeply nuts as Glee or American Horror Story. You never knew what you were going to get when you tuned in.

But something did happen. Something changed. Maybe it was the concept you discuss in your chapter on David Simon’s The Wire, the concept of "a novel for television." The idea that shows could be designed to be viewed in totality, at least on the back end. And there was not as much paralyzing fear that everything had to have a beginning, a middle and an end, tying up neatly within the course of any given hour.

Alan: That was definitely a big part of it. It was something David Chase was fighting against on The Sopranos. You can list all the different Sopranos storylines that began and then didn’t end, or didn’t end in the way we expected them to. A lot of it is just that you’ve got all these people like David Chase and David Simon and Tom Fontana and David Milch, who worked on these [network] shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s that were great shows. However, at the same time, their ambitions could only go so far, because they were beholden to a broadcast network model that aimed to draw as large an audience as possible. The thinking was, "You have to spoon-feed audiences to a degree. You have to give them case-of-the-week stuff.’

I love Hill Street Blues. I love St. Elsewhere. I wouldn’t say a bad thing about them. But there is a compromised nature to them that isn’t there in, say, Oz and Deadwood.


The Sopranos Effect

Matt: You deal with a lot of the influential pre-1999 shows—which is the year The Sopranos debuted—in your opening chapters, then you go into The Sopranos and move on from there. It seems to me you could easily have titled this book The Children of The Sopranos, because to some extent, even though a show such as Lost or Battlestar Galactica outwardly has nothing in common with The Sopranos, those shows wouldn’t have existed if The Sopranos hadn’t gotten on the air, stayed on the air, and been a hit.

Alan: That’s exactly true. A lot of the writers I talked to from Battlestar were writing on Deep Space Nine when The Sopranos came on. They all said, “We’re all going home at night and watching The Sopranos and thinking, ‘God, this is what we want to do!’” And they kind of got to do their version of it in the sci-fi realm. Damon Lindelof from Lost talked a lot about The Sopranos. He said that many of the influences on Lost were the same things that influenced Chase, like European film. The Sopranos made all these shows possible.

But then, Oz made The Sopranos possible—but without the commercial success that was ultimately going to lead to all those other shows.

Matt: What was the common thread in all these showrunners’ obsession with The Sopranos? It wasn’t the crime and violence, because some of these shows aren’t into any of that. Is it the postwar European cinema influence that you alluded to? Does it have something to do with the worldview, or the way in which the characters were portrayed?

Alan: It was all of those things. But it was mostly that, here was a show that was not beholden to any of the formulas that other people had to deal with in their [TV] day jobs, and them looking at The Sopranos and saying, “Wait a minute. You can do exactly the show that you want to do, you can make it intensely personal, make it really emotionally and narratively complex, you don’t have to treat the audience like they’re five years old, and you can still get millions and millions of people watching? Why can’t we try this?”

Matt: I was intrigued by the section in the Sopranos chapter where you and Chase get into the idea that, on The Sopranos, people don’t change.  About a year after that show went off the air, I had an email exchange with Chase about my recaps of the show. It was cordial, for the most part, but he did take exception to my endorsement of the idea that The Sopranos was about how people don’t change. I didn’t mean it in quite the absolutist terms he thought I did, but he seemed sensitive to it, because it was a more depressing view of human nature than the one he meant to communicate.

But it seems that you got that impression, too. And we certainly weren’t the only ones. And, when you talked to him five years after the conclusion of the series, he still seemed concerned about that perception.

Alan: The ultimate version he gives is not that far removed from what you or I or other people thought, which is that on The Sopranos, people can try to change, but it’s incredibly, incredibly difficult to do so, and we saw a lot of examples of that on the show.

Matt: That’s a pessimistic view, but I wouldn’t say it’s an unrealistic one. How many times have you taken stock of your life and resolved to make some fundamental change, then ended up two weeks later wandering around blithely like Homer Simpson, going “La la la la”?

Alan: Can you think of characters on the show who tried to change their inner natures, and succeeded?

nullMatt: Yes. But unfortunately, those people tended to end up dead.

Alan: [Laughs] Yes! That’s what I’m saying. They hung themselves in the garage.

Matt: Like poor Eugene Pontecorvo. Or Vito, who has his sojourn in the gay Shangri-La of Connecticut, then returns to New York City and gets clubbed to death.

All in the Game: The Wire

Matt: Let’s talk about The Wire. You quote the HBO executive Carolyn Strauss as saying, “That show was at death’s door at the end of every fucking season.” I knew Simon had trouble after Season Three, but I didn’t know every renewal was that hard.

Alan: Well, a lot of people would argue that The Wire was a better show than The Sopranos was. But it was never as popular as The Sopranos. And it was in some ways more challenging. You could watch The Sopranos and think, “Oh, guys gettin’ whacked, people cursing, fart jokes,” and ignore the other layers. The Wire had a certain amount of violence and coarse humor, but it was a more difficult show. It has become much more popular in death than it was in life.

Matt: You point out that HBO sent out all of Season Four of The Wire to critics at once. That’s become common practice for certain types of shows nowadays, but it was unusual then, wasn’t it? [Note: At the time, networks did this for miniseries, but not for regular series.]

nullAlan: I talked to a lot of writers for this book, and not one of them could think of a case in which that was done before. The thinking was, “This is a show with a lot of characters and a very complex plot, people always react better to a series at the end of its run than at the beginning, let’s send the whole season out at once and see what happens.” Season Four of The Wire was the perfect season of a show to do that with, because of the whole story involving the kids. It’s probably my favorite season of the show.

But that decision also speaks to what was happening at that time that was new. Doing a 10 or 12 or 13 episode order, finishing the whole thing and then sending it all out—a network couldn’t do that [before], because network shows made so many more episodes during a season, which meant shows were in production pretty much year-round.

Matt: You write of The Wire, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It isn’t designed like any TV show before it, not even the other early successes of this new golden age. It isn’t designed to be broken apart into bits, some parts elevated over others or consumed separately.”

For all the evolution that’s happened in American TV storytelling since The Sopranos, I can’t think of too many other shows that fit that description nowadays, Alan. There are exceptions. Treme, of course, but that’s a David Simon show. Sons of Anarchy is probably another one. The subject matter and tone on that one is more “pop” than on a Simon show. But I suspect that if you dropped somebody into season three or four of that show, they’d have no clue what the hell was going on—

Alan: There’s just such a Byzantine power struggle going on in that show. All the FX dramas have “Previously on Sons of Anarchy…” segments that seem to run almost as long as the episode.

Matt: [Laughs] Yes! You get near the end of a season of Sons of Anarchy, and you could cook a meal in the time it takes for them to get you up to speed on what happened previously. It’s not hard to see why there is resistance, even now, to this idea of television that has to be consumed and thought about in totality. Most of the shows that are devoted to that principle either have a small audience—which is the case with Treme—or they get cancelled after one season, which was the case with Rubicon.

nullAlan: I would say that Breaking Bad is a show in that vein. It took me till season three to fall in love with it in the way that I’m in love with it now, because—in much the same way as The Wire—it’s paced very slowly early on, it’s a different kind of tone than you’re used to, and you really need to see each piece built on top of every piece that came before for it to make sense, and for it to have the power that is has once you get to seasons two and three and beyond.

The Whole and the Parts: TV in Totality

Matt: Would you say that of the current dramas, Breaking Bad is the one that most needs to be considered in totality? Or are there other shows that need to be watched that way?

Alan: I think Mad Men is a show like that. If you watch “The Suitcase” from season four onward, you’ll be able to say, “Yes, this is good acting,” but you won’t be able to appreciate it if you haven’t been watching four years of Don and Peggy building up to that moment. Game of Thrones, I think, is like that—and obviously that series comes from the world of books. In fact, I think there are certain ways in which the narrative structure of Game of Thrones is not ideally suited to television, where they’re bouncing around from place to place, but the series does try.

Matt: There’s an important difference, though, between Breaking Bad and Mad Men and, say, Game of Thrones, The Wire and Treme— which you get into to a certain extent in the book—which is that some of these dramas, no matter how complex their plots, do at least give you a character or characters that are definitely the leads. That gives you something to latch onto.

Alan: True.

Matt: Even on Sons of Anarchy, which is an ensemble show, they orient you by letting you know that it’s basically about the bikers—the issue of succession, of who’s going to lead the club. That was never the case with The Wire. You may have a central plotline that serves as a spine for a whole season, but that was truly an ensemble show, and even the way the show was structured was extremely rigorous, almost off-putting. These characters and this subplot get two minutes, then we’re onto this other thing. Treme is that way, but even more so, to the point where I respect it but I find it frustrating, in that they’ll have a life-or-death storyline that gets two minutes, and then there’ll be two minutes about Antwone and his struggles with his high school band.

Alan: It can be frustrating. I was watching an episode of Parenthood the other night that was like that. In one scene you’ve got cancer, and you’ve got post-traumatic stress disorder, and then you’ve got a teenage boy getting caught fooling around with his girlfriend. You know? It’s like, “Uh, one of these is a bit more compelling than the other.”

Matt: It can be maddening. But I respect it in the case of something like Treme, because it’s indicative of David Simon’s worldview, which I think comes out of having worked in the world of general interest daily newspapers, where you have all these different sections telling stories of varying degrees of seriousness. Even though there are certain stories that are marked as more important than others by virtue of placement on the front page, ultimately, when you hold the entire newspaper in your hand, you get a sense of all things being equal.

That’s why there’s something humbling about Treme. Rationally, we know that every one of is us but an extra in the drama of life, and so forth, even though each of us thinks we’re the lead. But David Simon’s dramas are adamant in driving that home.Welcome to Deadwood!

Matt:  The Deadwood chapter of your book, more so than any other, is built around the personality of one man, David Milch, the show’s creator. Interestingly, that chapter feels like a character portrait in a book where the chapters are otherwise process-driven.

nullAlan: A couple of things drove that. One, I’ll admit that, in the arc of my career, Milch has been present so much that it was hard to resist putting him at the center of the Deadwood chapter. But the other is, I wanted every chapter to feel not quite like every other chapter—to find a different way into each of the shows—and Milch is his shows, and his shows are Milch, in the same way that The Sopranos is David Chase and The Wire is David Simon, but on a more elemental level, I guess.

Matt: You and I both visited the set of Deadwood when it still existed. I really felt as if I had stepped into the mind of David Milch when I was on that set.

Alan: Yes.

Matt: Just the way they’d constructed it, so that the writers’ bungalows, and the costume place, and the stable and the props department, all of that was in the same place, and the town was a working town. The interiors and the exteriors were in the same buildings. It was like that set was actually Deadwood, the real place, except there were lights hanging from rafters in the ceilings of the rooms and cameras and cables in the streets. I can’t really think of another show that did that. Maybe Lost was that way, because they were shooting on location in Hawaii?

Alan: Not quite, because on Lost, the writers were in L.A., so that was a much more split-up thing.

I felt like a portrait of Milch was the best way to illustrate HBO in that period as a place of absolute freedom. He took advantage of that even more than Chase did, even more than Simon did. He just kind of—not “went crazy,” but kind of went to town with, “I can do all of these things, and I don’t have the checks and balances that I’ve had to deal with throughout my career. Whatever I want to do, and in whatever process that makes sense to me, that’s what I’m going to do.”

nullMatt: My first insight into the controlled chaos of David Milch was when I spoke to Ian McShane, aka Al Swearengen, after the Television Critics Awards ceremony in the summer of 2004, after he’d been given an award for outstanding individual achievement in drama for his performance on Deadwood. I went up to him at the bar, made some small talk, then asked, “So, what’s it like delivering those long monologues? Did your experience in legitimate theater help with that?”

Then he took a drink, and he laughed.

Then he went on, “Let me tell you about Mr. Milch’s monologues. They are one or two pages long, and they are often one long sentence, if you study them, which would make them difficult to memorize and deliver anyway, simply because of that. But on top of this, Mr. Milch will never let you simply deliver a monologue. You have to be addressing a severed Indian head in a box or receiving a blowjob from a prostitute under a table.”

Alan: [Laughs]

Matt: And he goes on, “Added to which, often these monologues are rewritten up to the very last possible second, to the point where they’re handing you the pages five minutes before they call ‘action’, and the pages are still hot from the fucking printer!”

And I realized, as he was telling me this story, that McShane had absorbed the writerly rhythms of David Milch—a man who McShane speaks very highly of, by the way—even as he felt emboldened to bust the guy’s chops while talking to a journalist.

Alan: Well, that speaks to how each person who works with David Milch has to find his or her way of dealing with the controlled chaos of a David Milch production. Some people who’ve worked with Milch speak of him very highly and would work with him again in a second. Others just couldn’t handle it and wanted to get out of there as fast as possible, understandably.


Is TV better than movies?

Matt: I get the impression that maybe HBO doesn’t indulge showrunners in the way that they did during the heyday of the Davids, in the aughts. 

Alan: No, I don’t think they do. I think the approach has been codified now, and the stakes are higher, and if you’re doing a show, you sort of have to propose many more things going in. I know Milch is still developing shows with HBO. But even on something like Luck, eventually [co-executive producer] Michael Mann stepped in and said, “No, you can’t do this anymore. You can’t be on the set anymore, and you have to give me scripts in advance.”

So I think there are many more rules in place, because there is a lot more money at stake. HBO, once upon a time, was the little indie film company.  Now they’re more like Miramax, when Miramax started winning every Oscar ever.

Matt: It occurs to me that the rise of Miramax as a dominant force in mainstream American theatrical film came right around the same time that HBO became the dominant force in television. Not in terms of viewership, necessarily, but in terms of cultural influence. In a lot of ways, HBO was the Miramax of television, and Miramax was the HBO of mainstream theatrical cinema. 

Alan: There was definitely something in the water around that time. Plus, many of the things that we think of as being ‘independent film’ are now much more mainstream. There are not a lot of genuine independent films finding their way into non-arthouse theaters anymore, either.

Matt: Over the last five years, there have been a million thinkpieces claiming that TV right now is better than movies. Even some of the people who make television have been so bold as to make that claim. What do you think about that?

nullAlan: When I originally thought of the concept for this book, the subtitle was going to be, “How Tony, Buffy and Stringer Made TV Better than the Movies.” Then I thought about it and realized, no—I can name so many great movies I’ve seen over the last 10 or 15 years. They weren’t the big hits. They weren’t playing on fifteen hundred screens. But they were the equivalent of a lot of the shows in this book.

I think TV has filled a role that American movies have largely given up on trying to fill, which is the middle-class drama for adults. Movie studios still do some of those, but not as many as they used to before, and the few they do are blatantly positioned as "our Oscar film of the year, which we’re going to release around Christmas.”

A White Man’s Game
Matt: You talk in the Deadwood chapter about Milch’s work on Hill Street Blues, which seems like the Big Bang from which all these other stars and planets came.

Alan: It’s the Citizen Kane of TV drama.

Matt: It probably is, and not just in the sense of being influential. There was not a single thing about Citizen Kane that had not been done somewhere else before, but the genius lay in the fact that it had never before been done all in one film, guided by one sensibility.

Alan: What [executive producers] Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll were doing on Hill Street was lifting things from soap operas and putting them in the context of a police drama.

Matt: The open-ended, ongoing stories, the ensemble nature of it, the way the community itself was the focus. 

Alan: Yes.

Matt: It’s also interesting that so many of the so-called “quality dramas,” the dramas that are descended from Hill Street and that critics think of as recappable, are extremely male in their focus. They may or may not have strong female characters built in as well, but often they’re male-focused. And more often than not they’re built around crime or violence.  

nullAlan: True. A major difference between Treme and The Wire is that Treme doesn’t have a murder investigation every season pulling everything together. Well, there’s a little bit of that, in the scenes involving David Morse. But you might have expected them to go whole-hog on that, and they didn’t, really. Morse’s policeman is no more important on Treme than anybody else.

Matt: Is there a bias within television towards male-centered stories with crime and violence?

Alan: There very clearly is. When Carolyn Strauss told me that HBO’s decision of what to do as their first show after Oz came down to The Sopranos or something by Winnie Holzman, the creator of My So-Called Life, about a female business executive at a toy company, I immediately stopped paying attention to the interview for a good five minutes, because all I was thinking about was an alternate timeline where this Winnie Holzman show was the next big HBO show. I was asking myself, would the other show have spawned imitators? Or would it not have, because “Female business executive at a toy company” is not as inherently cool as “New Jersey wiseguy in therapy”?

Matt: Maybe not as “cool,” but potentially as interesting.

Alan: Oh, I think it could have been great. But commercially—and in terms of the interests of network executives, most of whom are men—the crime shows, the antihero shows, tend to be more appealing in the abstract.

Matt: And also, let’s be honest here, there is this thing known as “escapism.” Escapism doesn’t just mean you tune in each week and get to ride the unicorn to Magicland and kill the dragon. It means you get to experience situations and emotions that maybe could happen, but that you the viewer probably could not experience in daily life. In that programming scenario that you recount, one of those proposed HBO shows clearly is more escapist than the other.

I remember reading an interview with the filmmaker Paul Schrader from about 1982. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “To make an impact internationally, your film has to be seen by millions of people, and with some exceptions, the only kinds of films that have a chance of reaching an audience of that size are ones that have sex, violence, or both.” And that’s why so many of Schrader’s films had sex, violence, or both. It wasn’t only because those were the kinds of stories Schrader liked to tell. There were commercial considerations, too. He wanted his films to be seen and discussed. He needed eyeballs.

Alan: That totally makes sense.

I remember when you and I split the Sopranos beat at the Star-Ledger—the kinds of letters we used to get. Certainly there were people who watched the show for its Fellini-esque aspects and the other odd things Chase was doing, but there were a lot more people who were tuning in to see somebody get whacked.

Matt: And they were upset when an episode didn’t give them that.

Alan: Exactly. “What the fuck are these dreams, man? Why are we seeing Tony’s dreams?”

nullMatt: You see this kind of response to Breaking Bad today.

Alan: Yes. There are viewers who go, “Heisenberg is badass.” That’s the level at which they watch.

Matt: The negative reaction to Skyler—

Alan: Yeah, I know!

Matt: I don’t have any patience for people who insist that Skyler is a bad, boring, or unpleasant character. What she’s doing is throwing cold water on the macho fantasies of people who dig Heisenberg. Even now that she’s morally compromised, she’s still the conscience of that show, more so than any other major character.

Alan: She has unfortunately become an emblem of the misogynistic backlash that some of these shows get.

Seventies Movies, Millennial TV
Matt: Where do Lost and Battlestar Galactica fit into this era of TV drama? And Buffy the Vampire Slayer? That last one is intriguing because, correct me if I’m wrong, but if you look at the timeline, doesn’t Buffy pre-date The Sopranos?

Alan: It predates The Sopranos by two years. I think it even pre-dates Oz by something like four to six months.

nullBuffy was really an outlier. I had to contort myself this way and that to figure out how to include it in the book, which is so much about the effect of The Sopranos. My rationale was, it was on the air during roughly the same period, and the idea of what was happening on the WB at the time, and to a lesser extent UPN, later, in some ways paralleled what was going on at HBO, namely: Here we have an under-watched channel that wants to make a splash and is thinking, “Let’s do that by finding a creator that wants to something different. Let’s give him more rope than he’d get if he were doing this at NBC or ABC, and encourage him to do something that’s a lot more ambitious or a lot more complicated.” And again, in a genre piece.

Matt: When Vulture did their drama derby, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer contigent came at that contest like one of the armies in Game of Thrones.

Alan: You’re saying a sci-fi/fantasy show did really well in an Internet poll?

Matt: [Laughs] It’s different, though. The remake of Battlestar Galactica was a great and beloved show, but I don’t think it’s had anything like the staying power of Buffy. To listen to the way people talk about Buffy, you would think that it was on the air right this second!

Alan: I think that’s because a lot of people are still angry about how Battlestar ended. People may not have liked some of the later seasons of Buffy as much as the high school ones, but there’s nobody going, “Joss Whedon raped my childhood” or “He took the last seven years of my life.”

There is a kind of petulance that goes along with fandom of some of the genre shows. It’s like, “How dare you give me this thing I really, really enjoyed, until I didn’t?”

It’s important to emphasize that a lot of these shows are genre shows. The Sopranos is a mob show, but there are all these other elements. Buffy is a horror series, but that’s not all that it is. It’s a horror-action-comedy hybrid whose whole is greater than the sum of all of its different parts.

Matt: That point about being under-watched is interesting. In the late ‘90s and early aughts, when a lot of the experimentation was happening in dramas, UPN and the WB were under-watched compared to the other broadcast networks: NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox. HBO, meanwhile, was big in the world of cable, but its viewership was also a lot smaller than that of the major broadcast networks.

In that sense, what was happening in the 90s in the minor networks and cable channels was very roughly analogous to the conditions at movie studios in the late sixties and early seventies. They desperately needed to make a splash, to matter. So much of their once built-in audience had fled to television. They were sitting there with this gigantic production apparatus, all these people under contract working on fewer and fewer films each year, these enormous sets sitting dormant a lot of the time. Things got so bad that studio bosses were willing to give up autonomy and merge with conglomerates that didn’t have anything to do with entertainment. That’s how you got Paramount hooking up with Gulf + Western and United Artists with TransAmerica.

Alan: Yeah.

Matt: And those conditions are what allowed people like Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Coppola to slip through the door and have so much creative freedom. After a certain point, the bosses looked around, saw their kingdom in ruins, and went, “All right, we clearly don’t know what works anymore, why don’t you young guys give it a shot?”

Alan: There is very much a parallel between this era in American television and the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in American movies, with what was happening in cinema in New York and L.A.

Matt: And yet despite all these changes, vestiges of the old studio mentality remain in movies to this day, and remnants of old-fashioned broadcast network procedures remain in TV to this day. You give an example in your chapter on Lost.

Lost: What’s in the Hatch?


Matt: Lost was made by committee, basically, wasn’t it?

Alan: Yes. What happened was, Lost was conceived by Lloyd Braun, who was then the head of ABC, and who was on the verge of being fired, and needed a Hail Mary to prevent that from happening.

So he hired a writer to develop his idea, and [the script] was terrible. Then he brought in J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, and Abrams quit after they made the pilot. So there were all these different cooks in there, and it’s such a strange story. A show this good shouldn’t have been made this way. And yet somehow it was.

Matt: Yeah. And you quote little things that suggest Braun was really involved in the concept, like his insistence that all the semi-magical elements on the show ultimately be revealed as being based in science fact. That’s very definitely a creative note, not like some of these notes that some executives give showrunners, along the lines of, “Well, maybe less of this or a little more of that.” 

Alan: Yes, and eventually Lost did move away from that, though by that point Lloyd Braun had been long gone for a while. The people who don’t like the golden pool of light might have been happier if they’d stuck with that note!

Matt: It’s interesting that sometime around Season Three, ABC executives were telling the producers of Lost that they needed to make the show more like NBC’s Heroes, which was coming off a very successful first season, because, as we know, Heroes kind of went to hell in Season Two.

Alan: Oh, yeah, Heroes was one of those classic “Emperor’s New Clothes” situations. It was just that we were all so frustrated by what Lost was doing at the time, and then it was like, “Hey, look! Here’s this show that’s shiny and new, and it’s giving us answers right away! Everything! And clearly they’re building to something!” And it turned out they were building to somebody beating someone else up with a parking meter.

Matt: That whole thing is a testament to how incredibly ungrateful and easily distracted the heads of these major entertainment companies are. Lost, whatever problems it had in Season Two, was original, and a hit. That was ABC’s big, shiny thing. Then they looked at somebody else’s big, shiny thing that was slightly newer, and they said, “Let’s make it like that!”

Alan: And you remember all these terrible Lost imitators. Threshold and Surface and Invasion and Flash-Forward. All of them sort of took the most superficial aspects of the show and said, “Oooh, let’s do things that are weird and have mysteries and sci-fi,” and that’s not really what made Lost special.

Matt: No, it wasn’t. The industry thought [the popularity of Lost] was all about the mythology. It was partly about the mythology, but mainly it was about the same thing that makes every other really great show popular, which is that you never knew what you were going to get when you tuned in.

“Aw, they’re just making this up as they go along.”

Matt: It’s illuminating to discover in your chapters on Lost—and really, in some of the chapters on other shows, such as Breaking Bad—just how much of the plots of these shows are being driven by things that are happening behind the scenes, at the production level. Like what happened on Lost with Mr. Eko. Can you summarize that for us?

nullAlan: Mr. Eko, played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, was one of the most popular new characters on that show, and the actor just didn’t want to live in Hawaii anymore. He said, “I want to go back to England, and please kill me off.” And then they did! And the producers told everyone that’s why they did it. And because of that, it becomes part of the whole “ah, they’re just making this up as they go along, there’s no plan” thing.

Certainly there’s an amount of improvisation in everything on television. You can’t plan for it. Nancy Marchand died in the second season of The Sopranos, and they had to deal with that.

Matt: That’s frustrating for me as a television critic, trying to communicate this to people who watch TV but don’t really know how it’s made. To say “they’re just making it up as they go” is thought of as a pejorative way to describe television, but really, it’s just a statement of fact. Every show is just making it up as they go. Mad Men, even though it had something like eighteen months off between seasons four and five, was still just making it up, in a sense. Even if they have a rough roadmap of where they want to go from episode to episode within a season—

Alan: I’m sure [Mad Men creator] Matt Weiner was responding to certain things that the actors were doing, certain things that he felt were working or not working, and that’s a form of improv.

Matt: And when you’re writing or directing anything, you might go in thinking the character is going to do “A”, but then you have an inspiration and think, “What if they do ‘B’ instead?” Maybe that’s a better idea, but once you make that decision, everything that comes after “B” has to change.

Alan: What happened in Breaking Bad, Season Three, is a classic example of that. Season Two was very meticulously plotted-out. They were working backward from the plane crash. Not everybody liked the plane crash, even though they liked Season Two as a whole. In Season Three, it was more like, “Let’s fly by the seat of our pants, and these cousins will be the big bad guys.”

nullMidway through the season they decided, “The cousins need to die. They’re more trouble than they’re worth. We’ll make Gus Fring the big bad.” Season Three is everyone’s favorite season of the show.

Matt: Yes! That’s part of the appeal of television to me. I like to say that it’s not just an artistic endeavor. It’s also an athletic event.

Alan: Yes.

Matt: They have ten or 12 or 22 episodes to tell a story, and they have an outline going in, but beyond that, they have no idea where things will go. And they have to wing it.


What happened to the Russian?

Matt: If you had to pick three current shows that rank with the shows you cover in this book, what would they be?

Alan: If I had to pick shows that were as consistently good, week in and week out, the second season of Justified would slot in very comfortably with this period. The first season of Homeland would slot in very comfortably with this period. I’m a little concerned with some of the plotting that’s been going on this season; we’ll see. I’d be comfortable slotting in the first season of Game of Thrones, the second season maybe less so.

Those are three shows that, at their best, have the ability to go there. Boardwalk Empire goes there sometimes, but not consistently.

nullMatt: I thought it was very telling that you had this anecdote about the Russian in the “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos, that Terence Winter, now the creator and executive producer of Boardwalk Empire, advocated for a scene where we would see what happened to the Russian.

Alan: Yeah. Winter was always a much more traditional “beginning, middle, end" type of writer. Boardwalk Empire is a fairly traditional gangster show, whereas The Sopranos was a meditation on the state of 21st-century humanity, dressed up as a mob show.

Matt: I sometimes feel as if a meteorite hit The Sopranos, and all these chunks sprayed out and became Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, and Mad Men. In a lot of ways, Boardwalk Empire feels like the show that those people who used to write angry letters to the Star-Ledger

Alan: –wanted The Sopranos to be?

Matt: Exactly. “More whackin’, less yakkin’.” Mad Men is all yakkin’.

Alan: Boardwalk is definitely a more traditional drama, and is quite unapologetic about it.

nullYou know, I forgot one other: Louie. If I were writing this book a year or two from now, there would probably be a Louie chapter in it.

Matt: And of course, technically, Louie is a comedy.

Alan: Technically.

Matt: That’s a leading comment, of course.

Alan: I know. Technically a comedy. It’s a half-hour show.

But a lot of the things we love about Louie do not, for the most part, have to do with the aspects of it that make us laugh. It’s about the worldview of it, the aesthetic choices that Louis C.K. makes as a filmmaker, and these great dramatic moments, like in the episode where he’s trying to talk his friend out of committing suicide, and the episode where he goes out on the date with Parker Posey and she sort of slowly reveals herself to be mentally ill and yet sort of exciting at the same time.

It’s got that Lost thing that you talked about, where you put it on and you have no idea what you’re gonna get.

Matt: And I can’t really think of another show – maybe certain episodes of The Sopranos, and most of Moonlighting – where you can’t be sure how literally you’re supposed to take anything that you’re seeing.

Alan: It was funny: our colleague Todd VanDerWerff mentioned the book at the AV Club, and he mentioned how David Chase said that he had read exactly one thing on the Internet about the finale of The Sopranos that understood what he was going for. The commenters immediately jumped on the idea that he must be talking about that “Masters of Sopranos” article that purported to prove that Tony died.

And I went into the comments thread and told them, “No, I asked Chase about it, he’s never read that.” And they immediately had to contort themselves. “Well, uh, maybe he has read it, but he doesn’t really know it by that name!”

Matt: I think that’s the greatest achievement of most of the shows you deal with this in this book. Because they reached a somewhat wide audience, and they had that sort of intransigent artistic quality, slowly but surely they got a popular audience accustomed to that post-‘60s European Art Cinema thing that you were alluding to earlier, that mentality that says: You don’t have to understand everything. Not everything has to be wrapped up neatly. You don’t have to like characters and find them sympathetic in order to find them interesting. And ultimately, what you take out of the experience of watching the show is the important thing.

It’s not so much what the piece of art says, exactly. It’s more about you having to chew your own food. The show is not going to chew your food for you, you know? And sometimes the meal will be indigestible, and that’s part of the experience, too.

Alan: Yeah. And that’s one of the things that’s really amazing about these shows, the fact that the experience you get out of them is not what you were expecting, and you have to work for it. When you have to work for something, the rewards are usually greater.

Alan Sepinwall has been writing about television for close to 20 years, first as an online reviewer of NYPD Blue, then as a TV critic for The Star-Ledger (Tony Soprano's hometown paper), now as author of the popular blog What's Alan Watching? on Sepinwall's episode-by-episode approach to reviewing his favorite TV shows "changed the nature of television criticism," according to Slate, which called him "the acknowledged king of the form." His book The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever was published this month.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

Returning to St. Eligius: ST. ELSEWHERE, 30 Years Later, Part 2

Returning to St. Eligius: ST. ELSEWHERE, 30 Years Later, Part 2

Your ears didn’t deceive you. In the clip above, Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel) takes a verbal walk down Memory Lane as his residency at St. Eligius comes to a close in the final episode of St. Elsewhere’s six-year run and says it lasted “three years.” In the series’ original airing, I didn’t catch on immediately that each season only represented about six months and it took two seasons to complete a year. Don’t follow that timeline too closely—contradictions abound. Some units of measure adhere to that three year span—Norman Lloyd’s Dr. Daniel Auschlander began the series in 1982 at the age of 72 and, in the final episode that aired May 25, 1988, Auschlander tells Luther (Eric Laneuville) that he’s 75. Despite the fact that St. Elsewhere brought a new level of realism to the medical drama on TV, the show’s other elements weren’t bound by those same rules of logic and continuity. Tom Fontana and John Masius, the show’s longest-running writer-producers, penned an ending during that sixth season much different than the one viewers ended up seeing (and that the world still debates to this day). That unfilmed ending leaped 25 years into the future—to 2013—with Auschlander, dying of liver cancer since the show’s debut Oct. 26, 1982, still alive at 101. I’ll let readers work out the logical flaws in that math. (More on that ending in Part 3. I know we said a two-part series, but we changed our minds.) On the other hand, I don’t recall the first season explicitly stating 1982 was its starting point—perhaps St. Elsewhere took place in the future from the get-go. Certainly in many respects, the series often was ahead of its time.

nullTelevision shows routinely kill off major characters now, often at unusual points in a season, but St. Elsewhere knocked off or wrote off regulars right and left. Kim Miyori’s Dr. Wendy Armstrong became the first regular to take the fall near the end of season two. After escaping an assault by the rapist terrorizing St. Eligius, secretly suffering from bulimia and misdiagnosing a patient with dire results, Wendy took her own life and became the first cast member in the opening credits to leave as a corpse before the year was over. She wouldn’t be the last. Other series killed off characters, but usually that coincided with an actor’s decision to leave the show at the end of a year or a performer’s unexpected death in real life. “I was lucky I made the first and the last episode,” said Christina Pickles, who played four-times wed Nurse Helen Rosenthal, who would go through a mastectomy and breast reconstruction after a bout with breast cancer, as well as drug addiction, through the course of the series.  “It gave me five Emmy nominations and a career in this town, and it’s still having an effect,” she said. While not thought of as a particularly issue-oriented program, many topics passed through St. Eligius’ corridors that had little to do with medicine—apartheid, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, domestic terrorism, racism and bigotry, accompanied by the language of hate that comes as a shock to hear 30 years later on a prime time network show, even in context. The show touched on controversial medical issues such as medicinal marijuana, euthanasia, abortion—both the decision on whether or not to have one and the politics that can grow out of control surrounding it—as well as the then-new scourge of AIDS, which eventually infected one of its major characters (through heterosexual sex no less, stomping on the myth that only gay men and drug addicts need fear the disease). It even beat NYPD Blue in the prime time race to the moon when Ed Flanders’ Dr. Donald Westphall left the show in the third episode of the final season, dropping his drawers and telling Ronny Cox’s Dr. John Gideon, the new boss installed by the HMO that buys St. Eligius, that he can “kiss my ass, pal.” Cox shared a story relating to that scene I’d never heard before. “The NBC censor resigned over that,” Cox said. “(T)hat was back in the days when they still had Standards and Practices. I had a conversation with him once and he was so incensed by that, his sensibilities, that he actually quit over that.” That scene lived up to St. Elsewhere’s willingness to indulge in the downright wacky, always making us aware we were watching a TV show without explicitly breaking that fourth wall. Executive Producer Bruce Paltrow and his talented staff of writers and producers always walked a tightrope high above the floor below (often without a net). Still, as with The Flying Wallendas, sometimes the show didn’t make it to the other end of the wire. More often than not, the results proved thrilling rather than tragic.

Even with the decision to continue this tribute in two more parts instead of one, much ground remains to be covered. Channing Gibson began as a freelance writer on St. Elsewhere with his writing partner Charles H. “Chic” Eglee in the second season before they joined the staff as story editors with John Tinker, younger brother of producer Mark Tinker, the show’s co-developer, in the fourth season. When Masius and Fontana stepped down from their producing posts in the sixth season (though Fontana remained a “creative consultant”), the producing reins were handed to Gibson and the younger Tinker. (Eglee departed the show in 1986 to work on Moonlighting.) During my conversation with Gibson, he mentioned a formula that guided most installments. “St. Elsewhere always broke down, in almost every episode except for the stand-alone episodes . . . (into) four storytelling elements,” Gibson told me. “There was always a universal theme . . . which dealt with who we are as people, what life is about, that sort of thing. There was always a personal story that picked up on the thread of one of the characters and their personal lives and delved into it more deeply than we might get in an average episode. There was always a medical story, which was absolutely about medicine in the classic style, whether it’s Dr. Kildare or any other story, any other good medical show. Then there was always the humorous story. We built every show to have those four elements in them. At the same time, you’re passing people through and keeping the plates spinning on whatever they’re about.”

nullCindy Pickett joined St. Elsewhere at the end of the fourth season in 1986 as Dr. Carol Novino, a former nurse who entered medical school at the urging of Dr. Westphall and returns to St. Eligius as a resident. “I've never and haven't since been in an audition where you had to make them laugh and make them cry in one room in one audition,” Pickett said. “Because St. Elsewhere was a show that would make you cry and then make you laugh. So much of it was absurd. So much of it was very human and real and heartwrenching. Then this scene would be highly realistic and tragic and the next scene would be something completely surreal and funny.” Pickett had a pretty good 1986. Though she began as recurring, her role was upgraded to regular status by the fifth season in the fall. In between, she played Matthew Broderick’s mom in the summer smash Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

St. Elsewhere also rewarded the attentive viewer with inside jokes and callbacks to previous storylines, even if the callback took place in the past before the incident occurred, such as the great one in the classic season four two-part episode “Time Heals” (arguably the series’ masterpiece) where Auschlander advises a maintenance man in 1965 to put plenty of insulation in the ceiling, when in Season Three, in the present, the hospital treated that same character for fatal asbestos exposure 20 years later. I will attempt to do the same for the careful reader. Those with limited attention spans should pop a Ritalin (or two) or proceed to the nearest exit in an orderly fashion. Admittedly, part of my love for this series stems from my own enjoyment of cracking wise for a mere handful of patrons in the back row. In the first season, G.W. Bailey’s character, psychiatrist Dr. Hugh Beale, attempted to lift the spirits of Dr. Westphall, overwhelmed by trying to manage the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak while coping with administrative headaches from the hospital’s city overseers. “As Coach Bum Phillips once said of Earl Campbell, ‘You may not be the only one in your class, but it sure wouldn't take long to call roll,’" Beale tells Westphall. That certainly applies to St. Elsewhere as well.


Before moving on, in the rush to complete Part 1, I failed to include some crucial points relating to St. Elsewhere’s first season. Most egregiously, I omitted Bonnie Bartlett’s introduction as Ellen Craig. Bartlett originally auditioned for the role of Helen Rosenthal and expressed reluctance at taking the recurring role of Mark Craig’s wife, but her real-life husband William Daniels encouraged her to take the part of his fictional wife. “They put me in, and I was just a little tiny part, and I didn’t even really want to do it, but Bill wanted me to do it because he thought it was funny,” Bartlett said. “She was a cigarette smoker, and he thought that was very funny, and he taught me to smoke because I don’t know how.”  Ellen Craig’s introduction proves to be quite memorable as she confronts David Birney’s Dr. Ben Samuels, who has been driving Craig crazy by leaving him messages from a phantom doctor supposedly interested in purchasing his car. “It was really good company of people to work with. They were all really talented people,” Birney said. “We stuck together sometimes, an ensemble cast.” Terence Knox, the hospital’s troubled resident Peter White, reminded Birney of a particular example. When driving to the set one day, a policeman pulled Knox over, and Knox didn’t have his driver’s license. Birney happened to drive by. He stopped and asked Knox if he should tell the show that he’d be late to the set. The officer, recognizing Birney, was impressed enough to let Knox off with just a warning.

nullI also neglected to include this anecdote from Jennifer Savidge about the scene she felt made her character of Lucy Papandrao begin to stand out in the first season. “It was a very nice scene. It was just one scene, but I was on the phone the whole time, helping Ed Begley run some medical stuff for a test, and . . . Bill Daniels comes in to look at the schedule and starts yelling at Ed while Ed’s trying to recite this stuff and I’m yelling at someone on the phone,” Savidge said. However, behind the scenes, a bit more had transpired off camera. Savidge had been hospitalized with a severe concussion after a horse riding accident. Although blood was still pouring from her ears and nose and she was disoriented, her agent told her she better get to the set or they’d hire someone else. “So the next group of interns came in, or residents, or whoever, and I said, ‘Oh, I’m just feeling great. I feel fine, no headache, nothing.’ So they said, ‘OK, you’re good to go,’ and they released me. I spent that whole day leaning up against the wall with my head back, praying that the blood didn’t start pouring out of my nose again. This is the stuff actors will do. It was a stupid thing to do, an insane thing to do. I could have had a clot or something in my brain,” Savidge recalled. She managed to avoid any gushers and after her scene was done, Knox came over and told her, “’You know Bruce Paltrow just came down to the set, and he was watching you do the scene, and he was asking about who you were, and he was saying that’s what we need, that attitude, that kind of abrasive, clipped kind of attitude,’ and Terry said, ‘Think about that. You’ve got to find your niche here, because if you do, then you could go along with the show. And you have, by doing this, already established some kind of a niche. Develop it,’” Savidge said. “That was the hardcore, kind of bitchy attitude of this nurse, who knew everything and felt the doctors basically knew nothing. That’s, I think, why I started to develop in that character, and if I had scenes with Begley, there was that sort of combative relationship that we have, and my sort of sarcastic way of dealing with him. It was something that wasn’t anywhere else on the show, and that just developed.”

Birney and Dr. Samuels departed St. Eligius after the first season, as did Bailey’s Dr. Hugh Beale. No explanation for the fictional characters’ departures was given, but interestingly enough, Samuels’ final scene took place at the nurses’ station just as Cynthia Sikes’ Dr. Annie Cavanero’s final scene would, upon her departure at the end of the third season. Perhaps the nurses’ station served as St. Eligius’ Bermuda Triangle. Birney admits disappointment in leaving the show, but his departure afforded him the opportunity to take over the role of Salieri in the original production of Amadeus on Broadway. Of course, Bailey and Birney weren’t the only St. Elsewhere staff members that left after that first season—co-creators and producers Joshua Brand and John Falsey exited as well. “It was a great opportunity. We had a great time doing it,” Brand said. “I was a much younger guy. It’s nice to try to do something special, to do something different. I’m always astounded when people still react to it and a lot have very strong-held opinions about the show and remember things about the show. I’m a lucky guy that I got to do it. I’m very appreciative.” As for Sikes’ later exit, she said, “I didn’t feel that it was going to continue on, the character, the way I thought it would, so we parted ways.” 

That first season might have been all St. Elsewhere viewers ever saw (and they’d never have met Tommy Westphall or learned he was autistic). In fact, in the ratings-challenged first season’s last episode, “Addiction,” Fiscus asks the sexually voracious pathologist Cathy Martin (Barbara Whinnery) to perform an autopsy on a man named Nielsen who “died on his couch watching television.” After NBC officially cancelled the show and cast and crew began looking for work, they received a last-minute reprieve. ”The show was dropped after the first season and Brandon Tartikoff liked the show, liked the demographics of the show, and that’s how it went on,” Daniels said. That’s also the way the show progressed from season to season—always teetering on the edge of extinction. Tartikoff entered the executive ranks at NBC in 1977 and in 1981, at the age of 32, became the youngest president of network programming in history under Fred Silverman at the floundering network. The year after Tartikoff’s ascension, Silverman exited his role as chairman and CEO of NBC, replaced by the head of MTM Enterprises, Grant Tinker, father of Mark and John. To accept the job, Grant Tinker had to divest himself of his interest in MTM. What St. Elsewhere didn’t earn in Nielsen numbers that first year, it made up for in Emmy nods, grabbing 10 nominations, including nominations for best drama series and individual nominations for Daniels, Flanders, Begley, Pickles and guest stars James Coco and Doris Roberts (in the supporting categories, since the Emmys lacked separate awards for guest performers then); Flanders, Coco and Roberts won. Another NBC show that marks the 30th anniversary of its debut this year performed weakly in the ratings that season but won renewal and Emmy love, and even happened to be set in Boston as well—Cheers. For all the perceived darkness of the show's initial year, the period ended on a celebratory note as the St. Eligius staff celebrated the birth of Jack and Nina Morrison’s son, Pete. That would be one of the few moments of joy that the writers allowed Jack to experience for the rest of the show’s run.


The short clip that began this piece also demonstrates some of the new techniques from feature filmmaking that St. Elsewhere brought to TV—namely long unbroken takes using cameras like the one from Panaflex, light enough to carry and allowing of more movement. “On St. Elsewhere, we would do a lot of . . . one-shots covering a long amount of dialogue in a single scene,” Mark Tinker said. Part of Paltrow’s redesign of the set when he stopped production on the pilot allowed for floors and lighting to conceal dolly tracks. The show’s budget couldn’t cover a Steadicam. “We had a guy named Rick Gunther, who was an amazing hand-held cameraman, and occasionally we’d put him in a wheelchair—either a standup wheelchair or a regular wheelchair—but mainly he walked,” said Tinker, who wrote many episodes and directed even more in addition to his other roles. Tinker helmed about twice as many installments as the next most frequent director, who turned out to be Laneuville, performing double duty as Luther Hawkins. He made his directing debut in the second season episode, “After Dark.”

That scene from “The Last One” between Fiscus and the opera singer (Ealyn Voss), which Tinker directed, displays another filmmaking illusion that St. Elsewhere often employed. “We would also do things like walk into the elevator and then have a scene take place in the elevator that never stopped, that never had a cut,” Tinker said. "The characters were in the foreground and the doors in the background were facing out. While they were playing the scene, we’d switch out what was outside the elevator, so when they stepped out, it would look like a different place and make it seem like the elevator really worked.”

The typical episode of St. Elsewhere took seven days to shoot, though the length of shooting days on series varies widely today. Tinker, who now serves as executive producer on ABC’s Private Practice, the spinoff from Shonda Rimes’ Grey’s Anatomy, continues to direct not only on that show but others as well as he has in the years since the doors closed on St. Eligius. “Most shows (today) are eight, some of them are nine. For all but the last year of NYPD Blue, we did eight days. For the last year, in order to take about a million dollars out of every episode, we did seven-day shows,” Tinker said. On (Private Practice), for the first five years we did nine-day shows and we sort of did the same trick for this year, and then we took a day off and made a bunch of budget cuts, so we’re doing eight-day shows now. Some of the cable shows, like The Closer,  did seven all the time.” Just for comparison to other cable shows currently on the air: HBO’s True Blood averages between 11 and 14 days to film an episode, while AMC’s Breaking Bad typically shoots an installment in eight days.

Shooting schedules aren’t the only things that have changed in the decades since St. Elsewhere aired. It’s also rarer to find sequences on series that linger on a moment and allow the viewer to drink it all in, whether on network or cable. “I remember the scene where Helen Rosenthal comes back to work after her mastectomy,” Pickles said. ”There’s a scene [when Helen walks back to] the nurses’ station where [Dr. Beale] asks her if she’s ready to go back to work, and she says, ‘Yes.’ They would normally now cut there and go to another place but in those days the director cut back to Helen’s face, looking unsure and conflicted, in a very moving shot. Nowadays, that would not be in a television series.”  Exceptions do exist, of course. Even though Breaking Bad airs with commercials on AMC, it still gets away with exquisite eight-minute long dialogue scenes, at times.


I still feel fortunate that David Morse spoke with me for this tribute. He seems like a quiet family man who doesn’t like to talk about himself but loves the craft of acting and feels fortunate to have made a career out of it, one that keeps him quite busy. He just finished playing the title role in an independent film called McCanick that filmed in his hometown of Philadelphia. The next day, he was heading to Vancouver for a small part in the film Horns, starring Daniel Radcliffe, before returning to New Orleans to conclude his role as police Lt.. Terry Colson in  the criminally shortened final season of HBO’s Treme, which gets a whopping five episodes to wrap up all its stories. Morse stood out among the members of the St. Elsewhere ensemble as the conscientious Jack Morrison, and NBC executives loved him for it. “He is such a lovely, talented actor. The minute he came in to audition, it was so obvious that he was a special guy,” Brand said. “We loved writing for him.”

Other St. Elsewhere writers, particularly after the first season, however, loved to flip off people who pissed them off, and Morse and his character became part of the collateral damage from that impulse. “After those first two seasons, there’s not a lot that stands out for me. I loved directing on that last year and there are some things . . . the dream episode was really fun to do. Just sort of as an experience, [I loved] those first two seasons because of a lot of what my character was going through but also what he represented. That really was what I thought of as the character,” Morse said. “I thought he was fighting his fight in a strong way and coming out a single parent, losing his wife, all the things he was dealing with in the hospital.”

The second season death of his wife, Nina (Deborah White), provided one of the most memorable and touching moments not only of St. Elsewhere, but of television in general. That was particularly dramatic material but, after that, Jack’s traumas began piling up. His medical license proved to be invalid because he went to a shady school overseas. His brief romance with a woman named Clancy (Helen Hunt) ended after she cheated and aborted a pregnancy. Jack got temporarily paralyzed. His young son Pete was abducted. The clincher came when, while performing required volunteer duty at a prison, Jack was raped by an inmate. As if rape of any sort calls for puns and mocking, that episode bears the name “Cheek to Cheek.” Later, when that inmate, Nick Moats (John Dennis Johnston), gets out of prison and tries to find Jack again,  little Pete, unbeknownst to his father, swaps his cap pistol for the real gun Morrison purchased for protection. When Jack aims to kill Moats, he’s unarmed. Thankfully, the oblivious toddler wanders in and plugs the bad guy himself, leaving Jack to complain that he was “impotent again.” No wonder Morse felt compelled to play so many bad guys later in his career.

nullI asked Morse if at any point he talked to the producers or the writers about the nonstop barrage of suffering placed on Morrison’s shoulders. “I never really talked to them. No. I have my own theories about it and my own thoughts about it, but it’s kind of like talking about your own family,” Morse said. “I don’t really want to express it because we never really have talked about it. I think it’s more complicated than just what was on the screen.” I believe clues to the reasons behind the onslaught have been in plain view for a long time, though I can’t prove my hypothesis definitively. First though, a shaggy dog story.

How many remember the NBC series Here’s Boomer, that began in March 1980 and whose final episode aired a few months before St. Elsewhere’s premiere? That small number would be a lot smaller if Mark Tinker didn’t remind everyone repeatedly that the show about a mixed-breed terrier, a sort of canine Lone Ranger who traveled from town to town helping those in need before moving on, led to Jack Morrison’s nickname “Boomer” on St. Elsewhere. As Tinker has said since at least a Dec. 1, 1986 article in Us magazine by Mark Morrison, on the 2006 DVD commentary track of the “Cora and Arnie” episode, and to me personally, “The network was quite enamored of that program. On that show, they would tell the producers, they wanted more Boomer. On our show, they wanted more Morrison. Somehow we turned that into wanting more Boomer, and so we gave [Jack] the nickname Boomer.” Tinker says the same network executives sent those notes, and the Us article specifically refers to Here’s Boomer and St. Elsewhere having a common director who shared that story—the only common helmer being Victor Lobl. The Us article also quotes St. Elsewhere writer-producer and Tinker’s co-developer, John Masius, as admitting that by the end of the first season, Jack’s self-righteousness began to bore some of the writers and “we chipped away at his façade.” Funny. Watching the first season again, while I realize that Morse was playing a character, I had no inkling that Jack Morrison himself was some kind of phony putting on a show. He appeared genuinely sincere to me. The Us story and another one in People magazine the same year promoted Morrison’s wedding in the fifth season to Bonnie (Patricia Wettig), pushing the notion that Jack’s suffering might be over. One sentence in the Sept. 29, 1986 People story by Suzanne Adelson read, “’It's definitely going to get better for Jack,’ promises co-producer John Masius, ‘but it isn't going to be Miracle on 34th Street.’” Morse was quoted then as skeptically saying, “I think they're having too much fun with Jack for things to get better.” His instincts proved correct, since marital bliss ended up hampered by a former husband, Bonnie's departure for Seattle, and the eventual return of Nick Moats and his encounter with pistol-packing little Pete. If I’m correct at what lay behind the tormenting of Morse and Morrison, its impetus truly was nothing short of juvenile. Of course, it’s all speculation on my part, combined with bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence, though it might be telling to look at which members of the behind-the-scenes St. Elsewhere team Morse worked with again and which ones he didn’t.

Whatever prompted that nonsense, it doesn’t change the fact that Morse persevered and made Jack Morrison one of many great performances in his career. Pickett, whose character briefly hooked up with Jack in the final season, remembers “how shy David Morse was and I was shy, so we were shy together.” The ensemble welcomed Nancy Stafford in the second season as Joan Halloran, the person assigned by the city to oversee St. Eligius’ budget, as well as the love interest for the hospital’s new plastic surgeon, Dr. Bobby Caldwell (Mark Harmon). She remains proud of the success her co-stars have achieved. ”It sure did launch some great on-camera people. Howie Mandel is still doing stuff. He proved in that series to be a very underrated actor. David Morse is such a great actor, and I've always wanted to work with him again. I'm sorry I haven't had that chance over the years, but he proved to be just this amazing guy. Of course, then you get Mark Harmon and Denzel (Washington). So proud of those guys.” Still, Jack’s first tragedy in that second season provided Morse and Morrison with that indelible television moment.

The excerpt above can’t quite do justice to the convergence of storylines that led to that remarkable ending. It was the fourth episode of the second season. Stafford’s Joan Halloran had just been introduced as the “bad guy” because her job description made her ever-watchful for St. Eligius’ expenditures, which received a large added expense in the first episode when Alan Arkin’s Jerry Singleton decided to redecorate the E.R. with his car. At the same time, Dr. Craig was determined to perform a heart transplant on a longtime and otherwise healthy patient, the near saint Eve Leighton (the late Marian Mercer). Morrison’s main patient was Piper Laurie’s recovering stroke victim Fran Singleton. Then tragedy strikes in the form of a freak accident that takes Nina Morrison’s life. She becomes the heart donor for Eve Leighton, leading to an unforgettable scene, as Jack quietly listens for a connection to the wife taken from him so suddenly. “I’ve had so many people talk to me about that over the years,” Morse said. “Of course, everybody thinks they’re the only one who remembers it and they’re the only one it meant so much to—I can’t even give a number to the number of people who have talked to me about that episode. It’s an iconic moment in television, I think.” So iconic that more than a decade later, the soap opera General Hospital essentially ripped it off when the young daughter of one of its doctors died and her heart saved another child’s life, sending the daytime doctor to listen to his late daughter’s heart as well. “Steal from the best,” Morse said. Despite all of Jack Morrison’s trial and tribulations, he (and Morse) did receive a quite appropriate on-air gift in the show’s final episode.


The above line came at the end of an old Dennis Miller routine (back when he was funny, before he transformed into Howard Beale after Ned Beatty gives him the corporate cosmology speech in Network). However, it’s perfectly appropriate for any discussion of St. Elsewhere, which, throughout its six seasons, piled allusion upon reference upon inside joke, some inserted so subtly that they were easy to miss. Others were so blatant that they couldn’t be ignored. Either way, they served as a treat for the attentive viewer—and an outlet for the show’s writers who have admitted that sometimes, boredom can set in. “At a certain point in a TV show, the writers are writing for themselves to a large degree,” Gibson said. “If you’re just writing for the audience, you can get a little lost, a little bored.” The puns and references extended to the titles and weren’t limited to television—movies, books, poetry and theater also came into play. Television though remained at the top of heap. “We played around with the history of television and were very aware of ourselves as a TV show and all of us growing up as TV children,” Gibson said.

Stephen Furst, who first appeared three times in the second season as med student Elliot Axelrod before becoming a regular and a resident in the third season, loved that all the male residents’ fathers came from The Steve Allen Show. Granted, they missed or were unable to take advantage of the ultimate opportunity of having Don Knotts, Mr. Morrison in the old “Man on the Street” sketches, be Jack’s dad, but Tom Poston’s character in those bits never remembered his name anyway and his height made him appear more likely to have spawned David Morse’s character than Knotts anyway. Louis “Hi ho Steverino” Nye took on the role of Axelrod’s father, a veterinarian who brought a dog to St. Eligius, seeking chemotherapy. Bill “My name José Jiménez” Dana showed up as Fiscus’ dad (and Lainie Kazan turned up as his mother). Finally, Ehrlich, who always believed he was an orphan and raised by his daffy, usually drunk Aunt Charisse (Louise Lasser, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman herself), turns out to be the son of spies Lech and Olga Oseranski, played by none other than Steve Allen and his wife Jayne Meadows.

A cursory search of first season references, television and otherwise, in addition to the late Mr. Nielsen previously mentioned, uncovered obvious or subtle callouts to works as diverse as Star Trek, An Affair to Remember, The Twilight Zone, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, The Odd Couple, Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of, Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and a Geritol ad airing during the 1982-83 season. Of all the first season references, my personal favorite remains part of a phone conversation we overhear Dr. Beale having with someone we assume must be one of his patients as Dr. Westphall enters his office. “Mrs. Stephens, I don't think your daughter-in-law is a witch,” Beale tells the caller. “Masius and Fontana had a super reverence for these old TV shows,” Gibson said. Sometimes, the referential nature went so deep as to become allegorical, requiring research to discover all its layers, as in the sixth season episode directed by Morse, “A Coupla White Dummies Sitting Around Talking.” Written by D. Keith Mano from a story by Gibson and John Tinker, one of the storylines concerns Ehrlich being abducted by a maker of puppets and marionettes named Knox, played by Alan Young, best known as Mister Ed’s best buddy Wilbur. St. Eligius's Dr. Craig developed and installed an artificial heart called the Craig 9000, but Knox claims to be the true inventor of the device. The Knox character was based on a famous ventriloquist of the 1950s and ‘60s named Paul Winchell, known best for his dummy Jerry Mahoney. Winchell later became a recognizable voiceover artist, providing the voice for Tigger in Winnie the Pooh. One not so well known fact is that Winchell himself also liked to invent tthings: among the devices he developed and patented was an artificial heart, in 1963. The episode itself has one of St. Elsewhere’s most unusual endings: doll versions of Ehrlich and Craig discuss the events of the episode and end the show by singing You’ve Gotta Have Heart. “I still have that doll in storage,” Begley said.


For what may be the crowning achievement of the show’s penchant for references, look no further than “The Last One.” In fact, since that’s one of the only three episodes not from Season One that I've been able to revisit—thanks to having saved the video of the original airing for more than 24 years and transferring it to DVD myself (suck on that Fox Home Entertainment, and Rupert, I have the final Newhart as well, you stingy bastard)—I’m still discovering references in 2012 that I didn’t catch in 1988. For space reasons, we had to leave out a few references in the following montage: Craig’s “yeah yeah yeah” response to Ellen touting The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as one of the pluses for moving to Cleveland, as well as the cranky surgeon telling Rosenthal to “slide back to the Valley of the Dolls” in reference to her recent drug addiction. It’s always hard to catch the jokes over the P.A. system, so the Code Blue that gets called in Room 222, the series James L. Brooks created prior to The Mary Tyler Moore Show that featured early appearances by both Begley and Laneuville, didn’t make the cut either. It’s still stuffed full.

We’re probably lucky that I don’t have access to all 137 episodes, because going over all the references within them might very well crash the Internet. The show's creators squeezed in one last M*A*S*H reference in their final episode—and they alluded many times to that long-running comedy which ended the season they premiered, but I’m saving that discussion for Part 3. They also had done some Mary Tyler Moore winks before, but none on the epic scale of the finale. When Oliver Clark played the hysterical recurring role of John Doe No. 6, he watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show one day and became convinced that he was Mary Richards. Guest starring on the fourth season episode “Close Encounters” (which was followed by the episode “Watch the Skies,” the working title of Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film—even offscreen the writer were firing off references) happened to be Betty White, playing a military official and old friend of Westphall’s checking on an astronaut patient's condition. When John Doe No. 6 sees her in the hall, he immediately exclaims, “Sue Ann? Sue Ann Nivens?” to which she replies, “Sorry. You must have me confused with someone else.”

I wouldn’t want to try to catch all the hat tips to the musical 1776, in which Daniels starred on Broadway and in the film version as John Adams who, much like Mark Craig, was obnoxious and disliked, you know that sir. (The movie marks its 40th anniversary on the 17th of this month.) One I’d forgotten but that I found online occurs in the fifth season, when John Astin plays the husband of Dr. Paulette Kiem (France Nuyen), who becomes chief of surgery after Craig injures his hand. Kiem says something to her spouse in another language, and it can’t help but bring the Gomez out of Astin as he declares lustily, “Paulette—you spoke French.” That same year, they even paid homage to their MTM quality TV cousin Hill Street Blues when Lucy, promoted to head nurse while Helen was in drug rehab, ends a staff meeting with, “And hey, remember, let's be caring out there.” Not all of the pages—such as the ones frequently heard for Paltrow’s young children Gwyneth and Jake—were sweet and kind. New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor wrote a harsh assessment of what he found to be the series’ strange evolution “into a pattern of grim-faced titillations and questionable cuteness, salvaged from mediocrity by one of the best repertory acting companies in a weekly series. Far from being innovative, St. Elsewhere has become a middling example of nighttime soap opera, complete with rapists, drug addicts and ‘hunk’ actors spending as much time as possible with their shirts off.” What good is an intercom system if you can’t use it? O’Connor, who apparently kept watching despite his disgust, found that someone bearing his name kept taking a turn for the worse in the emergency room, something he wrote about in a preview of the finale: “This reviewer found some of the changes silly, which no doubt accounted for the periodic bulletins at St. Eligius that a Mr. O'Connor was fading fast in the emergency ward. This, of course, left me loving St. Elsewhere all over again, bed sores and all.”


While I disagree mostly with O’Connor’s 1986 assessment, it’s not because I found him completely offbase—I was a senior in high school by then, and lucky if I found a Sunday New York Times, so I didn’t read it when written. My main criticism would be that he’d addressed problems two years too late, after the ship had pretty well righted itself. On Feb. 15, 1984, the St. Eligius rapist first struck in the parking lot. Even at 14, I thought it was an odd move in an up-to-that-point stellar season, especially since the first victim wasn’t a character viewers knew. It didn’t look as if they were embarking on a rape victim’s storyline. The next sexual assault victim turned out to be Cathy Martin, in the morgue, the site of some of her consensual sexual encounters, and she managed to pull off the rapist’s ski mask—as viewers know—but the script the actors originally received just ended with Cathy being attacked. Terence Knox, the actor playing Dr. Peter White, who just had barely escaped punishment over stealing drugs, was appearing in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at José Ferrer’s Coconut Grove theater in Miami during the show’s holiday break. He had given the script a cursory read, but he had other lines on his mind at the time. While in his hotel room awaiting rehearsal, he received a phone call from John Masius. “He said, ‘Listen, you’re going to be the rapist.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You’re going to be the rapist.’ I just shrieked with despair and said, ‘No. No. I won’t do it,’ and I hung up the phone,” Knox told me. “The next day, I called them back and they were pissed off because I’d hung up the phone. They were pissed at me and I was pissed at them, but I was very grateful to them because everything I had as a career was owed to their giving me a shot. I guess it was my vanity more than anything else that was offended by the thought of myself being the rapist. I said I would do it and, as you know, I did.”

Later, Knox said he received assurances that White “was going to get away with it” and he learned that he’d be back for the third season. Between seasons, Executive Producer Bruce Paltrow “told me that they were probably gonna have to kill me off because they can’t have a rapist as one of the main characters on a show. They were probably gonna kill me off after eight or so episodes,” Knox said. “They were very kind to me. They gave me a career that I didn’t have and would not have had otherwise.” Still, the rapist storyline, as skillfully as Knox played the psychotic White, just distracted from the show’s other elements. It almost seemed like a precursor for the week-after-week, year-after-year chamber-of-horror shows such as Criminal Minds or Law & Order: SVU. “You know, [Terence Knox] was scary good in that role,” Nancy Stafford said. “Once he wrapped his head around being the rapist, boy—he totally got into it. He truly was frighteningly good in that part. I think it was a breakout for him, performance wise.”

For season two, St. Elsewhere received four out of the six Emmy nominations in the Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series Category. Three of those came from the first five episodes and only one—a classic disconnected from the rapist storyline—arrived late in the season. That episode, “The Women,” won the prize for the story by Tom Fontana and Masius and the teleplay by John Ford Noonan. It featured Paltrow’s wife, Blythe Danner, Brenda Vaccaro, and theater legend Eva Le Gallienne as the title characters sharing a hospital room. It's unfortunate that the episode provided no interaction between Le Gallienne’s character and Norman Lloyd’s Auschlander since Lloyd began his acting career with Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre in New York, making his stage debut in the company’s production of Liliom in 1932 when Lloyd was 17 and she was 33. “When she was on the set, I brought her flowers and sort of had a welcome reunion with her,” Lloyd said. “I hadn’t seen her in many, many, many years. It was lovely to see her and she remembered me, but I didn’t do any scenes with her.” Danner relishes the memory of working with the acting giant on that episode. “That was a great experience on ‘The Women,’ working with one  of the greatest American actresses, Eva Le Gallienne,” Danner said. “That was an incredible honor because a lot of people think she really is the first lady of the American stage and Brenda Vaccaro was a friend.” Not only did “The Women” allow Danner the chance to act opposite Le Gallienne and Vaccaro, her late husband directed her and she got to speak those award-winning words. “I remember having the great opportunity to work on that great monologue about my nose—that I wanted to make it more interesting, to give it a bump but Tom was so sweet and let me work on that with him,” she said. “It was a great experience.” Le Gallienne passed away in 1991 at 92.

That Emmy win for writing was the sole win for St. Elsewhere for the second season. Daniels and Begley received repeat nominations and Piper Laurie earned a supporting actress nomination. Stafford, who joined the cast as a regular that season, found both her favorite episodes that year. ”I think one of the funniest episodes was ‘Rough Cut.’ It's the one which has a lot of comedy where Dr. Caldwell—you know, Mark (Harmon) and I were about to go off to Paris—and he is telling them he has to rush rush rush hurry hurry and zips up his pants and he catches his (penis),” Stafford recalls. “I have to take him into the ER and he literally has to get uncut from his pants. You know he's in a lot of pain and, of course, the doctor who is assigned to tend to him was Cynthia Sikes. He asks, ‘Is there anybody else who could help?’” That particular episode also included Dr. Wendy Armstrong’s suicide, indicative of how no St. Elsewhere episode devoted all its time to comedy. I do wonder if The Farrelly Brothers were watching. “The other episode that I just love so much that I'm really proud of, because it was such a delight to do while it was hard at the same time, was an episode called ‘In Sickness and In Health’ when my dad died. William Windom was my dad. So awesome working with him,” Stafford said of the actor, who died in August at 88. “Priscilla Pointer played my mom. She was great. I liked (that one) because that was an opportunity for Joan  to get out of her strait-laced, hard-nosed ice queen role and just play being vulnerable.”

nullThat season also marked Stephen Furst’s first appearances as Elliot Axelrod, when Axelrod still was a med student. “I wasn’t working at the time and (my agent) said, ‘There’s a part on St. Elsewhere.’ . . . So I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do the part.’ She said, ‘It’s a small part.’ I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ She said, ‘No no—they want you to audition.’ I said, ‘What?’ and I got on my actor high horse and I said, ‘I’m not going to audition for this—one scene.’ She said, ‘You know, it’s a prestigious show,’” Furst recalled. “So I went and I auditioned and I did the one scene. By the time I drove home, I had already gotten a call that they had added another scene. I don’t think it was because of my performance from the first scene, I think they just had decided to write another scene. So it turned into a nice part with two scenes in it. Then about three weeks later, they had me come back and do the same part, the same character, small part. Then the third time, about four weeks later, they asked me to come back and do another one where the part was the lead. During the filming of that one, Bruce Paltrow came down and asked me if I’d sign a five-year contract and before he finished saying ‘tract’ on 'contract,' I had already signed.”


Since Peter White needed to be killed off, someone had to do the killing. They could have had him killed in a police shoot-out or perhaps let the traumatized Cathy Martin take out her revenge. Barbara Whinnery never moved up to regular status. They always could have simply sent White to jail. Someone had a different idea in mind, though I can’t say with certainty where it originated, but I believe I know with whom and why. Ellen Bry portrayed Shirley Daniels, a feisty ER nurse and recurring character in the first season who briefly dated Fiscus until the siren call of Cathy Martin lured him back. Shirley disliked Cathy so much that when she first heard about her rape, she actually told her that she deserved it. In real life, Bry was dating writer-producer John Masius, and they eventually wed—after she’d been written off the show. Daniels lures Peter White to the morgue and, in one of the show’s most infamous scenes, pretends to seduce him before pulling out a gun and executing him—making sure to shoot him first in a place that guarantees his raping days are over.

Writer-producer Tom Fontana and actress Sagan Lewis, who played Dr. Jackie Wade, were married throughout the run of the show but it took quite a while for Wade to grow in prominence. (She didn’t make it to regular status in the opening credits until the final season, when Fontana had left for New York but still worked on the show as a “creative consultant”). Shirley did return twice to St. Eligius for various reasons but, coincidentally, that’s the same number of return appearances that Terence Knox made as Peter White in an episode devoted to dreams and in “After Life,” when a comatose Fiscus takes a tour of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory and encounters several departed characters. Bry cites her last appearance as Shirley in the Season Five episode “Women Unchained” as her favorite. “The last scene of that show is a very dramatic scene between me and David Morse, where I’m being led off in chains again to jail. We have a heart-to-heart conversation in the emergency room,” Bry said. “I had really grown into my character and, I feel, really grown into my acting ability as well. I just felt that I improved as an actor during the course of the show.” Bry and Masius later divorced.

Pittsburgh viewers eagerly awaiting White’s comeuppance didn’t get to see Shirley fill Peter full of holes, as most NBC affiliates across the country did. It seems Pittsburgh station WPXI pre-empted the episode where White gets shot for “a Halloween treat” in the form of the horror movie Burnt Offering, so St. Elsewhere fans became somewhat confused the following week, when the episode started with Peter falling to the ground, shot, according to a Nov. 9, 1984, story in The Pittsburgh Press by Barbara Holsopple. The story quoted WPXI program director Mark Barash as saying, “I took about 10 calls from St. Elsewhere fans. You can’t please everybody.”


On Jan. 9, 1985, the first nonfictional person entered St. Eligius’ emergency room complaining of a possible injury while jogging. Dr. Fiscus dutifully took the name, but "Michael Dukakis" didn’t seem to ring a bell. When Fiscus asked for the jogger’s occupation and the man answered, “Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Fiscus dropped his pen in disgust and abandoned his station, leaving Elliot to take care of the patient. Fortunately for Gov. Dukakis, Axelrod recognized him. Even more fortunately, Dukakis agreed to talk about his St. Elsewhere cameo 27 years later from his office at Northeastern University in Boston, where he serves as a Distinguished Professor of political science. The former presidential candidate just turned 79 on Saturday.

“I was very committed to developing a very strong film office here in Massachusetts. I thought we had great potential—and we do. I’m not a fan of tax breaks for moviemakers, and we didn’t have any, but I thought this place was a great venue to do TV and movies,” Dukakis said. “I decided early on that I would go to Hollywood and talk to studio heads and spend two or three days there, which I did, because the one thing that was slowing us down was some difficulties the studios were having with some of the local unions, particularly the Teamsters, and I wanted to see if I could straighten that out and get that back on track and convince them we were film friendly.”

 During the trip, the head of the Massachusetts Film Bureau at the time, Marylou Crane, informed the governor of the opportunity to film the St. Elsewhere cameo. “I said, ‘Fine.’ So, early one of those mornings, I showed up and did my little cameo,” Dukakis said. The appearance as himself became the first in a long line of cameos that eventually included Cheers, Spenser for Hire, Lateline and Robert Altman’s Tanner on Tanner. Overall, the visit proved to be a success both for the governor’s state and Dukakis personally. The state’s ranking in film and TV production rose from near the bottom of the list to No. 5 in the U.S. during his tenure. On the trip, he also encountered a distant relative for the first time.  “I met John Cassavetes for the first time, who, it turns out, was about my fourth cousin. His father was a first or second cousin of my mother’s,” he said.

Prior to his St. Elsewhere experience, Dukakis already had logged many hours of television production experience beyond campaign commercials since he served as the moderator for the national current affairs show The Advocates that aired on 200 stations between 1971 and 1973. “I was probably a good deal more familiar with studio production and delivery on camera than most candidates so this wasn’t a particularly novel thing for me,” Dukakis said. “I also knew about doing take after take after take, which we did in this case.”

Boston proved to be a particularly popular setting for TV shows. “At one point, we had four major national series going, all set in Boston. We had St. Elsewhere, Cheers, Spenser for Hire and Paper Chase,” Dukakis said. “At the same time, I was trying to beef up our tourism promotion campaign . . . and people started pouring in here, and they haven’t stopped coming. The Cheers bar continues to be the single most-visited attraction, if you can believe this, in Boston.”

nullAs for the Franklin Square building that stands in for St. Eligius, Dukakis says that it remains and still provides good housing for seniors, though the elevated train seen in the opening credits disappeared long ago when Boston built a subway. While the South Boston neighborhood depicted on St. Elsewhere tended to be depressed and crime ridden, Dukakis reports that isn’t so much the case any longer. Once the overhead transit line was removed and the subway went in, the neighborhood surrounding Franklin Square grew to be quite prosperous and very expensive.

Since Dukakis, at the time St. Elsewhere aired, kept himself busy being governor and laying the groundwork for his 1988 presidential run, he missed the episode a few weeks after his where the writers had some fun by having an actor portray a homeless man who came into the ER and repeated the exact same dialogue to Fiscus that Dukakis did.


That exclamation of fear that you hear coming from the residents when they see that perpetual patient Florence Hufnagel has returned lets you know instantly how much the doctors thought of the old woman as one giant pain in the ass. “It was the quintessential story of the patient who drives the medical team crazy and is dropped through the cracks due to annoyance, dying from negligence. It was filled with the beautiful black humor so prevalent in the show,” Jennifer Savidge said. With longtime comic actress Florence Halop in the role, Mrs. Hufnagel turned into comic dynamite. “She was hired to do one episode and she lasted for 18,” said Stephen Furst, whose Elliot Axelrod ended up having the most complex relationship with the woman. “What a pleasure to work with her. She used to always say, ‘I’m so sorry I’m mean to you’ and I’d tell her, ‘That’s OK.’” When I told Savidge about Furst’s story of Halop always apologizing after a scene, she said, “I should have probably apologized to her!” the actress who played caustic Nurse Lucy Papandrao said. “She did relish the line she had asking me if I was a Cretin, since my name was Greek.” Hufnagel delivered another classic rejoinder to Sikes’ Dr. Cavanero in her final season, warning her, "Don't you dare put the hands on me, Butch." Savidge admits, “I often thought of that character whenever I have been hospitalized. I often thought of MY character whenever hospitalized.” That’s understandable. I might not be able to revisit those classic Mrs. Hufnagle moments, but decades and many tours through the U.S. health care system later, I understand her a lot better. Recalling her, I almost feel like gathering victimized and wronged patients across the country and having us one by one shout, “No, I’m Mrs. Hufnagel!" in an homage to both her character and Spartacus.

Halop, whose brother Billy was one of the original Dead End Kids, began her show business career at the age of 4 and worked on Orson Welles Mercury Theater Radio program (I should have asked Norman Lloyd about that.) In a Sept. 25, 1985, Los Angeles Times article about Mrs. Hufnagle’s demise by Morgan Gendel, Halop spoke about the fan mail she received from real patients. "Listen, I got more fan mail that said, 'Thank God you talked about the hospital bill!'" Halop said in the article, referencing a scene where Mrs. Hufnagel challenges a $6.50 charge for rubbing alcohol and complains that she could “buy a bottle of Chivas for that.” True then, true now. If you know what blue pads are, check out what you can buy them for and then ask why a not-for-profit hospital charges $27 for three, The medical adviser on St. Elsewhere advised the writers that, for realism, either she had to get well or she had to die and so she did – suffocated when her hospital bed snapped into a V, though ultimately it turns out a rare surgical mistake by Dr. Craig caused her death. People remember her though. In a 2010 article by Cheryl Clark for HealthLeaders Media, she wrote about Mrs. Hufnagel and about the dangers of readmissions, and how changes under the Affordable Care Act won’t allow Medicare to pay for them, taking those poor suffering hospitals off the gravy train. My heart bleeds. I guess their administrators will have to make less, but I know it will just mean that they’ll understaff nurses on purpose even more than they do now. “I felt very proud to represent the nurses,” Pickles said. She should. Most of a hospital’s burdens fall onto them and they get overworked and underpaid for it. Meanwhile, for the paper pushers at the top, patient care will slip further down on their list of priorities.

Channing Gibson reminded me of one of his favorite Mrs. Hufnagel bits. In her video will, we learn that her maiden name was Gluck and the same law firm had represented the Gluck family since Goody Gluck stood accused at the Salem witch trials. What always tickled Gibson was what Hufnagel told Axelrod in the video was the family motto: “It is better to be despised than forgotten.” After Halop left the show, she won the role of the new bailiff on Night Court when the great Selma Diamond died. Sadly, Florence Halop only had one season there before she died herself at 63. Mrs. Hufnagel wasn’t solely piss and vinegar though as she had a tentative romance with retired vaudevilian Murray Robbin (Murray Rubin). Furst cites the scene where he tries to comfort Mrs. Hufnagel as one of his favorites—it definitely showed a different side of the patient.


When I asked Tom Fontana if he had a particular favorite episode among the many in which he contributed during his six years writing and producing on the show, he replied, “I don’t think we ever made a perfect St. Elsewhere episode, but maybe that’s the nature of episodic television.” I found myself instinctively defending the show that transformed Fontana from a struggling playwright to a television success when I responded reflexively, “Time Heals” comes pretty damn close.” Fontana agreed somewhat about what to me clearly stands out as St. Elsewhere’s crowning achievement. Thankfully, the ambitious, amazing two-part episode from the fourth season happens to be the other St. Elsewhere episode that I managed to store on video all these decades. “Time Heals” manages to astound you just as much now as when it first aired on back-to-back February nights in 1986. In 1997, TV Guide ranked it No. 44 in their 100 best episodes of all time. I don’t have that full list handy, but I imagine that some of those 43 ranked above it were overrated. “Time Heals” uses the premise of the 50th anniversary of St. Eligius in 1985 (yes, despite this episode’s greatness, it does flout the show’s own time laws) to tell the back stories of Auschlander, Craig, Rosenthal and Westphall (and even a young Luther) in 10-year increments going back to the hospital’s opening in 1935 as a Catholic hospital by a priest named Father Joseph McCabe (played in an Emmy-nominated guest turn—the Emmys finally added that category—by Edward Herrmann).

Herrmann creates a remarkable character in McCabe from those opening moments of “Time Heals, Part 1,” where we just see him dancing his way through the empty hospital, preparing it for its opening, while an instrumental version of Ain’t Misbehavin’ plays through the loudspeakers. Viewers never have met McCabe before, yet without a word, Herrmann manages to evoke someone that you’d swear you’d known your whole life—or at least the entire run of the series. With just a bit of dialogue at the end of the gorgeous black-and-white sequence, Herrmann leaves an indelible impression—and it only grows in strength from there. Herrmann had been a friend of Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner for many years through work at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Herrmann credits Paltrow for making McCabe such a vivid creation from that opening scene. “Bruce had a very good idea about the kind of man (McCabe) was and I just sort of built on that. I’ve known a number of priests and it’s grand to break stereotypes,” Herrmann said. “The church was very strict in the ‘20s, the ‘30s, the ‘40s—basically until Vatican II in the early ‘60s—but that did not mean that priests could not be lively and full of humor. The idea that religion is in the trenches, that it’s not just in the church.” McCabe can be appropriately peeved when an adolescent Donald Westphall (Michael Sherrell) expresses prejudice, and suitably annoyed when a parishioner interrupts his trip to the bathroom stall to transform it into a makeshift confessional.

nullWe get to see McCabe in 1935, 1945 and 1955. Ed Flanders not only plays younger incarnations of Donald Westphall in 1955, 1965 and 1975 sequences, he also takes on the role of Westphall’s father in the earlier decades as we learn the tragedies that always struck the Westphall family. Norman Lloyd gets to play Auschlander from 1955 on but when the Jewish doctor arrives on the scene in 1945—and almost immediately faces blatant and ugly anti-Semitism—James Stephens takes on the role. Viewers get to see Daniel’s courtship of young Katherine (played by Devon Ericson before she ages into Jane Wyatt). William Daniels gets a lot of the laughs as we see that in his younger days, Mark Craig basically behaved like Ehrlich to his mentor Dr. David Domedion (played in the 1955 scene by Jackie Cooper, 64 at the time, though at the end of the previous season, i.e. 30 years later, I guess, an 83-year-old Dean Jagger turned up as the ailing Domedion). It even turns out that the medical instrument which was given by Craig to Ehrlich, after saying that Domedion presented it to him, was actually purloined by Craig. When Christina Pickles arrives from England in 1965, Nurse Helen just has logged her first marriage and her last name is Eisenberg. We also get to follow the story of one family through those decades and how learning a medical secret from the past solves a medical mystery in the present.

Written by John Tinker, Masius and Fontana and directed by Mark Tinker, “Time Heals” also is a technical knockout. For a series always in danger of cancellation and a limited budget, spectacular production values pervade the entire two hours with each time period using color and variations on the familiar musical themes to evoke the decade being portrayed. Of the 14 Emmy nominations that St. Elsewhere received for its fourth season, six came from one or both parts of “Time Heals” and it won for costuming, art direction, sound mixing and writing, Separately that year, Daniels won his second consecutive Emmy as lead actor and Bonnie Bartlett won her first as supporting actress, the first time spouses won Emmys on the same night. “They just got very involved in our personal life and I came up with the idea of us having the grandchild and the son dying, whom Bill took to Bruce Paltrow, and those are very powerful episodes and that’s what got me the first Emmy,” Bartlett said. “It was the writing. It was great.” Another nomination that year went to Alfre Woodard who garnered a lead nomination when she joined the ensemble as ob-gyn Dr. Roxanne Turner, though she didn’t appear in the opening credits. In one of the very best scenes of “Time Heals, Part 2,” the church sells St. Eligius to the city and makes plans to transfer McCabe elsewhere. The priest explains to Auschlander why he named the hospital after that particular saint. I’m surprised more people didn’t make that connection when the show’s ending came around.


In many respects, medical shows on TV can be divided into two eras: B.S.E. and A.S.E. Despite its ventures into outlandish areas, St. Elsewhere injected a level of realism to the medical series that had been missing from the dramas that preceded it on the tube. “It was the best of all the medical shows and the medical shows that sort of spun off from it. They learned a lot from St. Elsewhere,” said Lloyd, who turns 98 on Thursday. In fact, several of the cast members and guest stars bridged those time periods, having appeared on earlier series, and later showing up on the next generation of medical shows of every stripe. In the first three episodes of the second season, Laurie played stroke victim Fran Singleton. The actress first appeared on a medical drama in a 1963 episode of Ben Casey as a favor to her friend Mark Rydell, who was beginning his directing career. To play Fran, Laurie said, “I think I went to Santa Monica Hospital and I met someone who got me to meet some people who suffered strokes and I also talked to some doctors.” Some of the cast had to prepare as well for Fran’s memorable entrance via the car driven by husband Jerry (Arkin) plowing through the ER wall. “I remember I gave Piper Laurie mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the first show she was on,” Sikes said. “I actually did mouth-to-mouth—I had to learn how to do it, which is great. I had to really learn medical procedures.”

The performers also had to learn complicated medical terms as well. When Stephen Furst first began playing Dr. Axelrod, he couldn’t wrap his vocal cords around some tricky words but, thanks to a very cooperative extra in an ER scene, Furst employed the old Brando trick and taped the lines to the side of the woman’s face where he could read them. “The writers used to love to give us these long medical terms,” Cindy Pickett said. “I had a devil of a time trying to memorize it. Whenever they would give you one, they would all come down and watch you flub up for a while. They got a kick out of watching us struggle with these long medical terms. Me, especially.“ One of Pickett’s favorite moments on the show involved Dr. Novino at work, but it involved examination, not long words. “Ray Charles was my patient one time. He wanted to come on St. Elsewhere and play a homeless man and so I was his doctor. People kind of stayed away from him because he was such an icon, a legend. I would sit beside him, take after take. I had this one scene where I had to . . . take (a retinoscope and look into his eyes) and I always felt like I was violating something,” Pickett said. “I'm probably the only other person in his life other than his doctor who was looking into this beautiful man's blind eyes. It was strange and I thought, ‘Gosh, I hope he doesn't dislike me for doing this, somehow. Somehow I felt very vulnerable because it seemed like a very vulnerable thing to do, especially with a legend, but he was so gracious about it and he would make me laugh.”

Whether playing doctors or patients, performers of all ages had to learn about medical techniques or specifics about their ailments or disorders to make it look real. While Laurie was an adult researching the behavior of stroke victims, Chad Allen was only 8 years old when he auditioned for the role of Tommy Westphall, Donald Westphall’s autistic son. “I didn’t really know what autism was when I was 8 years old and approaching the idea of playing Tommy Westphall, and I had to learn a lot,” Allen said. St. Elsewhere became the first series to feature a recurring autistic character. The only other regular series prior to that to feature an episode centered on an autistic child was a 1978 installment of Quincy M.E. titled “A Test for Living.”  “When you are that young, it’s hard to understand the depth of character. I remember my mother explaining to me when we were going on the audition that autistic children are stuck in their own world and it’s hard for them to relate to people on the outside of that,” Allen said. “I had a very active imagination as a kid and I loved to play pretend and I had my own world that I invented so I related to the character in that way. That’s how I approached it—I played pretend like I always did but I insisted on staying in that world and not coming back to reality.” Five years after the end of St. Elsewhere, Allen returned to a series about medicine, though it went back in time instead of forward—Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Laurie returned to a fictional emergency room again when she played George Clooney’s mother on ER. What changes struck the actress the most in the portrayal of TV medicine in those decades? “They became so sophisticated it seems to me that all they’ve got on television are sick people, doctors and detectives—and people being murdered—but the actual medical stuff is so sophisticated,” Laurie said. Edward Herrmann returned as an elderly Father McCabe in the fifth season as the priest suffered the ravages of Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS. Previously, Herrmann had starred as Gehrig himself in a 1978 television movie A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story with Blythe Danner playing Mrs. Gehrig. “I learned a great deal from Mrs. Gehrig when I did the film,” Herrmann said. As for the different approaches to playing two very different men in different times afflicted with the same disease, the actor said, “McCabe had a very vital and vivid faith and he looked as an Orthodox Catholic would look at suffering . . . as a gift that you could participate in the suffering of Jesus.”

“At St. Elsewhere, we broke some rules and took the old Ben Casey/Dr. Kildare kind of ideas and turned them on their heads much the same way Hill Street turned the old cop shows on their heads,” Mark Tinker said. Begley has played a lot of doctors since Ehrlich, but he also appeared on quite a few serious, not-so-serious and seriously creepy hospital-set shows dating back to his days as a young actor with an appearance on Medical Center. Since St. Eligius closed its doors, Begley acted on the short-lived Gideon’s Crossing, Scrubs (alongside other St. Elsewhere alums Daniels, Furst and Laneuville), the U.S. adaptation of the horror miniseries Kingdom Hospital and Rob Corddry’s twisted comedy Childrens Hospital on The Cartoon Network, on which Pickles also has appeared as a nurse. “Medical shows starting with St. Elsewhere got quite real. ER and Chicago Hope—those are very good shows,” Begley said. “They got good with St. Elsewhere and I think they got even better with ER and Chicago Hope and Grey’s Anatomy—these are all wonderful shows. We definitely raised the bar as far as medical shows but ER took it to another level.” Of his mini-reunion with his former co-stars on the first season episode of Scrubs titled “My Sacrificial Clam,” Begley said, “We had a ball. At that point, we hadn’t been together for awhile.” Daniels recently filmed a stint on Grey’s Anatomy, playing a doctor whose first name happens to be Craig.

Tinker holds a unique perspective on medical dramas. Not only was he the most frequent director on St. Elsewhere and currently executive produces and frequently directs Private Practice, he directed at least one episode of Chicago Hope (which his brother John executive produced for several seasons), ER and Grey’s Anatomy as well. His behind-the-camera point-of-view offers its own take on the changes in medical shows. “By the time I got to those other shows, the technology of shooting the shows and the presentation of those shows in terms of the editing and the pace and the density of the writing had changed quite a bit,” Tinker said. “Today, the editing pace is faster—I think you can blame MTV or congratulate them, whichever way you look at it, for shortening people’s attention spans or making them need to have more visual stimulation. The stories were sort of all the same, just the style in which they were executed were different.” Lloyd, not only an acting veteran of stage, screen and television but an experienced director and producer as well, has witnessed many filmmaking changes in his long career. Though referring to movies when he said this, it applies to the changes in TV editing styles of which Tinker spoke as well. “I may seem that I’m an old fogey as I’m approaching my 98th year, but it seems to me there was a period of great storytelling. I don’t see that now,” Lloyd said. “The mechanical changes have affected the way people tell stories. There is a very modern way now of cutting and jump cutting. For my own tastes, the great storytellers were in the business long ago but not today. We didn’t have to go into special effects or people from outer space all the time . . . As good as those pictures are, we were about the human condition.” More than 54 years may separate me from Lloyd in age, but I tend to agree so that must make me an old fogey as well.

As for the medical shows since St. Elsewhere, I admit personal bias. St. Elsewhere spoiled me for other medical shows for a long time. I never got into ER or Chicago Hope (in fact, my favorite Chicago Hope scene happens to be a tossed-in gag in an episode of Tom Fontana’s later series, Homicide: Life on the Street). I love Hill Street Blues, but the police genre allows for more elasticity so I could enjoy later series such as Homicide, The Shield or The Wire (though The Wire painted on a much broader canvas than simply police work). It wasn’t until Scrubs and House that I found medical shows I could watch again. Somewhere around the second season of St. Elsewhere, while being wheeled into outpatient surgery to have tubes placed in my ears, I asked how real those staffers thought St. Elsewhere was. One of the nurses replied, “There isn’t as much sex around here.” I also inquired as to whether there would be music in the O.R. and there was, only in real life doctors, nurses and the rest don’t have to deal with the ever-present greed of the music industry or work up sound-alike cover versions as St. Elsewhere had to do to avoid paying fees that never  end. (Even an imitation Led Zeppelin song was too much for that notoriously stingy band, which made them pull the fake from the rarely seen syndicated version.) The only real version the show ever bought the rights to use was ZZ Top’s Legs for Luther’s dream sequence.

I only digressed because it so happened that a lengthy hospital stay led to me watching House in the first place, which I loved when it was great (though that came mainly in its first four seasons) and because of Hugh Laurie’s magnificent performance. Morse even appeared early on as police Detective Michael Tritter, a cop that Dr. House treats so poorly during his hated clinic hours that Tritter pursues a vendetta against House and any of his colleagues who don’t cooperate, one of the heavies that he felt compelled to play after the excessive amount of abuse piled upon Morrison. When I asked if that’s really what made him be so mean to poor Dr. House, Morse answered, “It is why I’ve been so mean to everyone since then.” Like House, I take glee in tormenting administrators and doctors not doing their jobs (though unlike the limping TV doctor, nurses tend to love me, and I lack a Vicodin addiction), but I’d be that way if I’d never seen any of those endless House marathons on USA. “(House) is an original character, but he is the kind of character that reminds me of the kind of characters that we had on St. Elsewhere,” Gibson said. “He was a really terrific, very specific kind of character. Consciously or not, there’s certainly a bit of Mark Craig in him.” Gibson also happens to be the only person I interviewed who agreed with me somewhat that if you look for a natural successor to St. Elsewhere, you won’t find it in the hour-long dramas that came after it, but instead you’ll spot that sensibility more often on Scrubs. Gibson thinks I’m keying in on the comedic element. “St. Elsewhere was written very specifically always to have an element of humor,” he said, but Scrubs, at its best, aimed for more than just laughs. Patients died—sometimes going out with a musical number, sometimes just quietly. Even recurring characters could meet their end, only to return in one of the show’s many fantasy sequences. They addressed the financial issues of medicine just as seriously as St. Elsewhere did, whipsawing the viewer between the sad and the silly within moments of a single episode. Perhaps what struck me as so familiar was its awareness of itself as a television show with Jimmie Walker, Colin Hay or Ed McMahon making inexplicable cameos and guest stars from a different generation of TV shows such as St Elsewhere or The Love Boat. Finally, Scrubs also took place in a teaching hospital and, though they weren’t surgeons, the relationship between Dr. Perry Cox (John C. McGinley) and Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian (Zach Braff) definitely contained echoes of Craig and Ehrlich. Scrubs might have been a half-hour shorter and classified as a comedy, but Sacred Heart always seemed to be a first cousin to St. Eligius to me. I loved House at its best, but there I thought the medicine served as its MacGuffin. You watched for the main character, not for the cases.


“Ed was such a good actor that there was no difference in his behavior before the camera or just in life talking to you. He was so natural, so real,” Christina Pickles said about Ed Flanders. In that brief scene above from the famous crossover between St. Elsewhere and Cheers in the last episode of the third season, Flanders actually spoke both as Donald Westphall and himself. It wasn’t clear that Flanders wanted to return for another season of St. Elsewhere. In fact, when Flanders decided to return, everyone scrambled to fit Westphall into the fourth season premiere at the last minute. As Norman Lloyd said in Bill Zehme’s 1988 article on the end of St. Elsewhere in Rolling Stone, “He personified the spirit of St. Elsewhere. There is no finer actor in America.” Sadly, as often happens with the most talented of artists, Flanders’ ample gifts came wrapped with darkness that eventually led him to commit suicide in 1995.

Stories abound of the difficulty of working with Flanders at those times, but when everything flowed smoothly, the results proved remarkable and the praise pervasive. “Ed, oh, Ed was troubled, but he was this wonderful actor. He was sort of the patriarch of the show. It was difficult at times working with Ed, but he was such a seasoned, wonderful actor that it was, well, that part was a gift,” Cindy Pickett said. “The part where he was having a hard time with everything in his life—it actually gave his character more depth, but I was very grateful to have had the time to work with him that I did.” When Pickett joined the show, writers originally intended to make her character of Dr. Carol Novino a potential romantic interest for Dr. Westphall. “He had his demons and to be romantically inclined  with him on the show, I got a lot of those demons in my face and it was hard. Whenever you work with somebody, sometimes when things don't go smoothly it creates a dynamic that's good on screen. So, it worked. I had great respect for him.” The most widely reported incident related to Flanders’ return for the last episode where he was to give a highly emotional speech after Dr. Auschlander’s death to the staff, but Flanders went off script, first in rehearsal where, according to the 1988 Rolling Stone article, he said, “The only reason I’m here is $118,000 a week! The truth is I’m not going to miss any of you!” When the time arrived to film the scene itself, he again strayed from the words on the page, only this time into what Zehme described as a “meandering dirge” with Flanders “faltering repeatedly as he said, ‘I don’t think there are any words for love.’” Bruce Paltrow and the rest of the behind-the-scenes team had grown used to reshooting his scenes or fixing them in editing, though they considered refilming the speech as intended with William Daniels delivering it as Mark Craig. Instead, they did film it again with Flanders saying part of it to an empty room. If you watch the scene, it’s pretty obvious that Westphall’s words and the staff’s reactions aren’t happening simultaneously. “We were used to that with Eddie. Eddie had his demons but such an outstanding, brilliant actor that even the crap was pretty great,” Tom Fontana said.

“The scenes that we loved were anything with Ed Flanders and Bill and I together. Whenever we had a scene, it was absolute heaven on the set, I was playing with my two favorite actors,” Bonnie Bartlett said. “They were the most giving actors, never egotistical, always what’s best for the scene never thinking about the close-ups. “ No one disagrees on that point—or that Flanders had little use for performers who felt the need to immerse themselves into character. Edward Herrmann worked with Flanders previously on the famous Eleanor and Franklin series and admired him immensely. “He had little patience for actory actors. I remember one time talking to him about Shakespeare and I brought up A Midsummer Night’s Dream because I’d done a production of it in Lincoln Center. I played Flute the bellows-mender and they have this play within the play, Pyramus and Thisby, which is one of the looniest, daffiest, funniest, stupidest plays ever written because it’s played by amateurs and Shakespeare had a wonderful time sending it all up,” Herrmann said. “Eddie started laughing and said, ‘You know, every actor should do Pyramus and Thisby once a year just to blow out all the crap. It’s so funny and so silly that you can’t be pretentious playing Pyramus and Thisby.’ He’s absolutely right. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Get rid of all the New York method pretention. Get rid of all the English pretention and the French pretention and the Russian pretention and have a ball and be goofy.”

Despite any hassles, those behind-the-scenes sat in awe of Flanders’ talent as well. “One of the tremendous pleasures of the show was getting to work with these terrific actors. Each of them had a different style, different background in acting. They excelled in different ways. Ed Flanders was a truly amazing actor,” Channing Gibson said. “He wasn’t putting anything on in a visible way the way some actors do. He was very naturalistic in that way. He could bring it out in take after take after take. He was really phenomenal.” Paltrow cast Flanders again in another series. “(Flanders) was a wonderful actor. We did a series called The Road Home for Bruce Paltrow. Ed Flanders, when you looked at him in character—he just was that guy,” said Terence Knox, who had the lead role in the short-lived series.

Nancy Stafford particularly remembers a scene with Flanders when her character, Joan Halloran, has to take the fall with the city for the costs of repairing the ER. “I do remember there was really a wonderful scene between me and Ed Flanders in the dining room where basically, it's one of the first times where Halloran is vulnerable and sort of allowing her heart to get exposed,” Stafford said.  Sagan Lewis, who played Dr. Jackie Wade, recalls how most of the younger actors stuck together out of respect, not just for Flanders but all of the acting veterans on the series. “The younger actors did seem to cling together, but I always attributed that to a respect for the veterans (like Billy Daniels, Bonnie Bartlett, Norman Lloyd, Ed Flanders and Christina Pickles—all theater legends),” Lewis said. “There was a clear delineation between who was accomplished in the acting world and who were beginning their careers. The veterans were supportive and excellent role models for us. For the most part, they were true pros. We younger actors wanted to get it right.” The true youngest member of the cast has the most distinctive recollections about Flanders since Flanders was the main actor he played opposite. “Ed and I were close. I remember to this day—it sounds funny—what it smelled like to be held by him because he spent a lot of time with his arms around me controlling me or holding me,” Chad Allen said. “I remember that very clearly. He was an amazing actor. He was dedicated to his work. I learned to respect the craft a lot from that early work with Ed.”

Despite the bumps and conflicts and the constant threat of cancellation, Lewis continues to remember her time on the show fondly. “The St. Elsewhere world was filled with people being people. Perfect environment? Probably not. Great work? Yes. I do recall Ed Flanders addressing some of us younger actors in the makeup room one morning. We were talking about our fairly low ratings. He got up from his makeup chair and grinned. ‘You kids better enjoy this gig while it lasts because I'm tellin' ya, it don't get better than this!"

[This piece will be concluded Thursday, November 4.]

Special thanks to Daniel Butterfield of The St. Elsewhere Experience and Peter Labuza for finding that 1988 Rolling Stone article for me.

From an early age, Edward Copeland became obsessed with movies, good television, books and theater. On the side, he nursed an addiction to news and information as well that led him into journalism where he toiled for 17 years until health problems forced him to give up the daily grind of work. In addition to writing for Press Play, he ran the blog Edward Copeland on Film (later renamed Edward Copeland's Tangents and currently in hibernation) and has written for The Demanders on, at Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, Movies Without Pity, Awards Daily as well as the political commentary site The Reaction.

Returning to St. Eligius: ST. ELSEWHERE, 30 Years Later, Part 1

Returning to St. Eligius: ST. ELSEWHERE, 30 Years Later, Part 1

In the video above, for the first time, the St. Elsewhere credit sequence, set to Oscar-winning composer Dave Grusin’s memorable and infectious theme, unites all 26 regular cast members who graced its opening credits for varying lengths of time, ranging from a single season to its entire six-year NBC run, which began 30 years ago tonight. G.W. Bailey’s psychiatrist Hugh Beale never actually passed resident Seth Griffin (Bruce Greenwood) in the corridors of St. Eligius, but now Press Play has brought them together as fellow alumni of this groundbreaking, one-of-a-kind medical series. If the theme sounds different than you remember it, that’s because the original version of Grusin’s tune wouldn’t run long enough to squeeze in all the performers. On the occasion of the series’ pearl anniversary, I’ve been fortunate to speak with many of those who participated in making St. Elsewhere a show that tugged at your heart, tickled your funny bone, made your jaw drop at the chances it took and, ultimately, evolved into a program whose secret subject was television itself, camouflaged as a medical series–assuming that any of the stories contained in its 137 episodes actually happened at all, given the controversial series finale.


Premiering more than a year and a half after Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues changed television’s idea of what a cop show could be and brought a large ensemble to a prime time series, St. Elsewhere arrived from MTM Enterprises, the same company that made Hill Street. (MTM’s original pitch to NBC actually referred to St. Elsewhere as “Hill Street in a hospital.”) Created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey, developed by Mark Tinker and John Masius, and executive produced by the late Bruce Paltrow, St. Elsewhere didn’t have an easy birth. “The genesis of the show came from my oldest friend who was a resident at The Cleveland Clinic,” Brand said in a telephone interview. Like St. Eligius Hospital itself, which teetered on the brink of disaster throughout the series run, so did the show.

NBC wouldn’t agree to let St. Elsewhere begin production until the network saw 10 scripts for the show. Cancellation seemed possible at the end of every season. Production started on the pilot while Paltrow completed work directing the movie A Little Sex. Actor-director Lou Antonio began helming the first episode. To play Dr. Daniel Auschlander, who originally hailed from Vienna, the magnificent and amazing actor Norman Lloyd employed an Austrian accent. Additionally, the great actor Josef Sommer, especially memorable as the leader of the corrupt cops in Peter Weir’s Witness, portrayed Dr. Donald Westphall, and the wonderful David Paymer, whose body of work includes a subsequent Oscar nomination for Mr. Saturday Night, filmed scenes as Dr. Wayne Fiscus.

null”When (Paltrow) got back and he saw the rushes, he didn’t like the look of the show at all, so he closed down. He fired the cinematographer. He put in a ceiling on the show so it wouldn’t look like Dr. Kildare – a sparkling hospital. We had to go to MTM to get permission to do that because they took quite a hit financially,” said William Daniels, who won two Emmys for playing chief of surgery Mark Craig. The changes extended further. Thomas Carter, who made his directing debut while playing Hayward on Paltrow’s previous series, The White Shadow, replaced Antonio in the director’s chair, and Sommer and Paymer’s roles were recast. “In the recasting, Ed Flanders came in. In Ed Flanders, you had one of the very best actors in America – one of the very best actors, underappreciated. There was none better than Ed Flanders,” Lloyd said. There were other changes as well, which Lloyd described: “They repainted the set to a color that was easier to take than the color that existed. In general, they changed everything. They decided that they didn’t want [Auschlander] to come from Vienna and [he became] a New York guy brought up in lower Manhattan. That saved the pilot, and the pilot came out very well indeed.”

Still, the production shutdown proved nerve-wracking for some, particularly the younger performers whose excitement at being cast turned into a fear of being fired. Cynthia Sikes, who played Dr. Annie Cavanero during the first three seasons, recalls, “A lot of us, we were sweating it out (thinking), ‘Are we going to get the axe?’ Because he didn’t tell us. He said, ‘We’ll see. We’re rethinking things.’ We thought, ‘Oh great.’ So we went from the high of ‘I got it! I got it’ to ‘Oh my God! I may not have it! I may not have it.’ It was a roller coaster, but I got to stay and that was good.” Terence Knox, who portrayed resident Peter White, whose character’s downward spiral began with adultery before ending in the third season with a literal bang, said, “I worked one day because I had one scene and then we shut down. I remember I heard there was going to be a shakeup in the cast. I was afraid I was going to get a call from Bruce Paltrow saying they were going to find somebody else for my role. I sat around for a couple of weeks, wondering what was going to happen and then my phone rings one night about 8:30 and the voice says, ‘This is Bruce Paltrow.’ I said, ‘Please Mr. Paltrow, don’t fire me. Give me a chance. I’ll get better.’ He just started laughing. ‘No no no. You’re fine. I just wanted to let you know we’re going back into production in another week.’ I started crying I was so relieved.’”

nullDavid Morse, who has accumulated quite a body of work since his days as Dr. Jack Morrison, still recalls exactly where he was when informed of the shutdown. “I remember being in The Sportsman’s Lodge when I got the call from Bruce saying for me not to worry, that he was happy with what I was doing, but they were going to shut down for awhile and retool, recast and think a little bit,” Morse said. “It’s a hard call to get, because even though we had only done a few days of shooting, you’ve already started to bond with that group of people, David Paymer especially. Josef Sommer was older, so we really didn’t have that kind of relationship, but you knew yourself that there already was a team coming together, and that was gone. It’s not easy to go through a kill patch with people. Obviously, good things came out of it—Howie (Mandel) or Ed Flanders, but . . . it’s not a great thing to go through for anybody. I’m sure it stung at the time, but (Sommer and Paymer have) both had pretty good careers.”

Even once the pilot resumed production, characters’ status remained very fluid, something that remained the case throughout the series’ run; some roles made a steady rise from the end credits to regular status, while other parts originally intended to be prominent slipped to “recurring” status, if not disappearing altogether. Many characters marked for an early exit or a limited appearance organically grew once Paltrow and his writers saw a spark of something in them, as was the case with both Ed Begley Jr.’s Dr. Victor Ehrlich and Daniels’ Dr. Craig, who was planned as a minor role.

null“I had tried out for Terence Knox’s part, Dr. Peter White, and I didn’t get it. Instead of the regular part, the plum role that I wanted, Peter White, I got this other part, Ehrlich, that they merged with another character,” Begley said. “I thought, ‘Well, they threw me a bone, but I’ll make the best I can out of this part’ and Ehrlich turned out to be one of the best parts in the run of the show.” The role that Begley initially sought wasn’t supposed to last as long as Peter White did for Knox. Knox said, “They couldn’t decide what to do with me so they kept bringing me in for auditions . . . I got a call at my home from the casting director at NBC, Joel Thurm. He said, ‘They’re not sure what they’re gonna use you as, but they want to use you for something. Would you be interested in the part of Peter White?’ I said, ‘Sure, sure.’ He said, ‘Now, they’re probably gonna kill him off at the end of six episodes.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. I don’t care. I’ll take it. I’ll do anything.’ Originally he wasn’t supposed to be on that show very long because he was a screwup, you know, but that turned out to be a good storyline and they kept writing more stuff for me.”

The onscreen pairing of Daniels and Begley proved crucial to the expansion of both characters. “There was chemistry there. They liked the interplay between us, so there was a certain amount of humor between us,” Daniels said. Begley said, “My part was just in one or two episodes and then they said, ‘Well, we’d like you to do three.’ I was elated. Then they said, ‘We’d like you to do six.’ I was over the moon. Then very shortly thereafter, they made me a regular and I died and went to heaven.” Jennifer Savidge, whose character, Nurse Lucy Papandrao, would be Ehrlich’s wife by the show’s final season, started on the show as an unnamed, uncredited character in the pilot before rising to become one of the show’s most memorable characters. “That was due basically to Jeffrey Tambor, who was friends with the original director, Lou Antonio . . . He just called him and said you need to use this girl, and he just basically hired me for it, and I think I just went in and met him, and he said, ‘Here, we’ll give you something on it. It was a very small thing in the operating room. You couldn’t even see my face because I was behind the mask,” Savidge said.

The newest face to series television that first season wasn’t one you saw on the screen. Paltrow and his wife, actress Blythe Danner, brought to the show many friends and colleagues they had met while working at The Williamstown Theatre Festival each summer. One happened to be a struggling New York playwright named Tom Fontana. “I was a starving, unsuccessful playwright here in New York City when Bruce Paltrow plucked me from obscurity and said, ‘I’m doing this new medical show. You want to come to California and write one?’” Fontana said. “‘I said, ‘Sure.’ I was flat broke, even though I had sort of an attitude about television at the time. I didn’t sort of have an attitude—I definitely had an attitude about television. My income as a playwright for the previous year, which I believe was 1980, was three thousand dollars, all-in. When he said to me I could make 12 thousand dollars, which was Writers Guild minimum at the time, I thought, ‘Oh boy. I could live for four years off this St. Elsewhere money.” Fontana figured he’d write one episode, then return to New York with his payday and resume his playwriting career. “He had enormous patience, though he was brutal in his criticisms. He really sat me down and taught me. They asked me back to do a second script, then they asked me to be a story editor. Of course, being completely naïve, I said, ‘What’s a story editor?’” Fontana’s wife at the time, actress Sagan Lewis, also ended up with a small role on the show as Dr. Jackie Wade who, as in the case of Savidge, by the end of the series’ run, had ascended to the opening credits with the other regulars.


“Donald, do you know what people call this place? Not St. Eligius. St. Elsewhere—a dumping ground—a place you wouldn’t want to send your mother-in-law.” – Dr. Mark Craig, “Pilot” (Written by Joshua Brand and John Falsey)

When St. Eligius officially opened its doors to the general public on Oct. 26, 1982, its initial slate of regulars consisted of Flanders, Bailey, Begley, Knox, Mandel, Morse, Sikes, and Daniels, as well as Christina Pickles (Head Nurse Helen Rosenthal), David Birney (Dr. Ben Samuels), Kavi Raz (Dr. Vijay Kochar, anesthesiologist) and a certain young actor, cast as first-year resident Philip Chandler, by the name of Denzel Washington. By the time the show ended its sixth and final season, only Begley, Daniels, Mandel, Morse, Pickles and Washington had held a spot in the opening credits from the pilot to “The Last One.” (Flanders departed memorably in the third episode of the sixth season, though he did return as a guest star for two more episodes that year.) As integral a part of the show as Lloyd’s Auschlander became, his character also had been marked for an early exit in the first season, introduced as an expert on diseases of the liver who found himself suffering from terminal liver cancer. Lloyd and Auschlander both proved too precious to let go.

The digital clock that would appear periodically in the corner of the screen read 9:03 p.m. at the beginning of that first episode. (Craig later references the new clocks he’s managed to acquire for the hospital, which are all supposed to say the same time.) The first recognizable face we see belongs to Eric Laneuville as Luther Hawkins, wheeling a maintenance cart and checking pay phones for loose change. Laneuville, another White Shadow alumnus, would also evolve with the show; he eventually made it to the opening credits and started a burgeoning directing career which continues to this day, as his character went from being a cleanup guy to studying to be a physician’s assistant. Characters came and went throughout the run. St. Elsewhere, despite some performers’ names listed beneath “starring” or “also starring” credits, truly worked as an ensemble. No one person stood out as the lead or the main character.

null“I thought the star of the show was the actual St. Elsewhere, the building, the hospital,” Pickles said. “The story was really about the heart and soul of this extraordinary, crumbling, generous place, filled with people trying to do their best work against all odds. When we left the hospital and went to somebody’s home . . . I thought it was never as exciting as staying in those halls and corridors and nurses’ stations.” Looking back at the first season now—which is all most people in the U.S. can see, since 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment holds distribution rights to the MTM library and only released the first season on DVD or for streaming—the initial 22 episodes of St. Elsewhere come off as rather straight-forward by comparison with some of the more surrealistic and flat-out wacky aspects that came along in later years. ”The first season was sedate compared to the others,” Begley said. That first year definitely lifted medical dramas on television to a higher, more realistic level that separated it from past medical series such as Ben Casey or Marcus Welby. “Our intention was to make it feel real. That was pretty much our guiding principle,” Brand said, referring to himself and co-creator Falsey. “We got a lot of reviews from medical journals and doctors and it was very gratifying to see how they felt that it was by leaps and bounds that it was much more reflective of what reality was than what had been projected on television prior to that.”

At St. Eligius, patients didn’t always recover. According to Brand, “A lot of people seemed to have felt the first year was darker. Some people might have found it depressing. There was humor, but it was black humor for the most part. I think that Falsey and I were somewhat affectionately called Dr. Death and Mr. Depression because we didn’t think you were going on vacation or going to The Love Boat when you went into a hospital. There was sort of a high body count that first year.”

The laughs extended beyond dark comedy though, especially through the interplay between Craig and Ehrlich. Daniels and Begley’s chemistry rivaled that of any of the romantic pairings that the show created over the years. Those two actors together guaranteed gold, though both got to display more dramatic sides by themselves as well. Even though Birney’s Samuels departed after the first year, he also received his share of comedy and tragedy, including his memorable entrance in the pilot episode: Samuels, one of the hospital’s lotharios, finds that he’s contracted gonorrhea and proceeds to try to remember all the female staff members he has slept with, so he can advise them to be tested (he was a conscientious lothario). Samuels informs one nurse about his condition, only to learn that, though they did go out, he fell asleep and they didn’t have sex, befuddling him further. “That was such a funny way to start in the first show. That sense of comic bewilderment,” Birney said.

A lot of other characters provided a mix of humor and pathos over the years, especially that of Mandel’s Fiscus, which extended behind-the-scenes as well. “It was always very hard to work with Howie and Ed (Begley) because we would always start laughing, and Howie was a big practical joker,” said Stephen Furst, who appeared three times in the second season as medical student Elliot Axelrod before becoming a regular and a resident in the third season. Still, for all six years, the interplay between Begley and Daniels kept matters from becoming too dark. “He’s got a mean head butt,” Begley said, referring to Daniels in their first surgery scene as Craig and Ehrlich. “He nailed me pretty good and it got my attention. It was wonderful. It woke me up, which I think was the stated purpose.”


The first season focused more frequently on issues in health care, beyond diagnosis and treatment, than later years did (if memory serves—I’ve been deprived of access to the rest of seasons two through six since TVLand stopped airing reruns around 13 years ago). Keeping the hospital open and fighting administrative penny pinchers always remained issues on the series, but that first season also dealt more openly with scalpel jockeys, the high costs of fruitless tests, and doctors on the take. “We were sort of influenced by the Paddy Chayefsky movie The Hospital. I think the tone did shift, and I think it was probably the desire of a lot of people to have the tone be a little lighter and the surrealistic aspect of it might have been something that might or might not have been related to that,” Brand said. “I have a deeply emotional reaction to the idea of a St. Elsewhere because of the health care system in this country,” Pickles said. A British native and naturalized citizen, Pickles came to the U.S. in 1958, though her character Helen arrived in 1965, as we learned in the fourth season episode “Time Heals.” “If you go to England and you cut your finger," she said, "you’ll be taken care of automatically for no money. This country is absurdly behind the times, which creates awful stories of people waiting around in emergency rooms.”

The first season episode “Cora and Arnie” (story by Brand, Falsey and Neil Cuthbert; teleplay by Cuthbert; directed by Mark Tinker) stays with original viewers mainly due to the Emmy-winning performances by guest stars Doris Roberts and the late James Coco as a homeless couple who wander into the ER because of Cora’s various problems, which she doesn’t want to face because she’s mentally disabled Arnie’s sole protector. However, another storyline within that episode that I had forgotten until I rewatched it struck even more of a chord with me. Bernard Behrens and Anne Gerety portray a couple visiting Boston; the trip takes a strange turn when she passes out in their hotel room. As Fat Tony once said on The Simpsons, “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true” and we’ve made it the centerpiece of this montage.

As Brand says, “Thirty years on, the problems are still there. They’ve only become more pronounced. You’ve got a lot of very powerful groups that are sort of feeding at the trough. Nobody wants to give up their piece of the pie.” At the end of the first season, Brand and Falsey moved on from St. Elsewhere. The team would go on to create the short-lived but critically acclaimed and award-winning series A Year in the Life and I’ll Fly Away as well as another show involving a doctor–this one practicing in tiny Cicely, Alaska, in Northern Exposure. “There were a lot of chefs, and it just seemed like it was the best thing for everybody, for myself individually and for the show, to pack our bags and move on . . .  There was the genesis of the show and how the show evolved,” Brand said. “At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. Looking back, I think it was the right thing to do. Certainly, for me.”

In that first season, you can spot many up-and-coming actors such as Ray Liotta and Michael Madsen in small roles, and Tim Robbins in a multi-episode arc as a heartless sociopath turned domestic terrorist that Morse’s Jack Morrison had to treat, despite his misgivings. Robbins and Morse reunited years later in different capacities, when Robbins directed two episodes of Morse’s current series, Treme on HBO. “[Robbins’s role was] certainly one of the most memorable characters that I got to work with on that show, but I don’t know if it was because of what Tim became after that or how vivid a character that really was. Probably a combination,” Morse said.

The top-notch writing soon attracted many big name performers—some of whom rarely did television—to check in to St. Eligius. “The writing was so strong that very good actors who were not on the show would request to be on the show because they knew they’d get very good scenes to play,” Daniels said. In the second season premiere, two of them memorably came crashing literally through the emergency room as Alan Arkin (as Jerry Singleton) plowed his car through the hospital walls after his wife Fran (Emmy nominee Piper Laurie) suffered a stroke. Laurie, who last year published her memoir Learning to Live Out Loud to much critical acclaim and success, had known Arkin for years but never worked with him before St. Elsewhere. “With Alan Arkin, it was really exciting because I’d  never worked with an actor on film who had such freedom in terms of the actual dialogue,” Laurie said. “He just took it. I never quite knew what he was going to say. It was an interesting and exhilarating experience for me.”

Morse’s Jack not only treated Laurie’s character, years later she would play his mother in the films The Crossing Guard and Hound Dog. Patricia Wettig, who eventually played Jack’s second wife on St. Elsewhere, also crossed acting paths with Morse frequently, which is what the actor says is one of the things he loves best about his job. “I worked with Alan Arkin and since then, I’ve become friends with Adam, his son. I’ve worked with everybody in his family at one point or another over the years. Working with Patty (Wettig) over the years, working with Piper Laurie over the years—this just happens with more and more actors and it’s one of the things I really, really love about this business, if you’re lucky enough to keep working, is just touching on these people’s lives over the course of a lot of years,” Morse said. “To me, there’s something very touching about it and very gratifying to have these connections. At one time, it feels just like we have a job together and ‘See you later,’ then 15 years later, you’re doing something together again. Like I said, it’s one of those things that really means something to me.”

(Special thanks to Daniel Butterfield of The St. Elsewhere Experience.)

From an early age, Edward Copeland became obsessed with movies, good television, books and theater. On the side, he nursed an addiction to news and information as well that led him into journalism where he toiled for 17 years until health problems forced him to give up the daily grind of work. In addition to writing for Press Play, he ran the blog Edward Copeland on Film (later renamed Edward Copeland's Tangents and currently in hibernation) and has written for The Demanders on, at Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, Movies Without Pity, Awards Daily as well as the political commentary site The Reaction.

Five Great Moments of Dramatic Irony in MAD MEN

Five Great Moments of Dramatic Irony in MAD MEN

Before postmodernist self-reference, there was dramatic irony: a little wink from the writer that acknowledges the audience. It's not just that we know something the characters don't. It's that the writer knows we know. This common soap-operatic device lets the audience in on secrets bound for explosion: adultery, murder plots, or the revelation of a child's real parents. Mad Men is more subtle in its use of dramatic irony. Because the show is arguably one long character study, it's not as interested in plots that go boom. Instead, dramatic irony often helps to flesh out the characters involved by demonstrating how they react to situations and adding texture to a scene. Don's real identity, for example, is something that we and certain other characters know about. But his reasons for keeping the secret are treated with more significance than the possibility that anyone else might find out. When the truth is occasionally exposed, the reactions are restrained. Case in point, Bert doesn't even care. Even the scene with Betty lacks melodrama. After five seasons of solid storytelling, here are five of Mad Men's greatest moments in dramatic irony. There were many to choose from, so if your favorite isn't here, tell us about it in the comments.

He's from Europe – "The Jet Set" (S. 02)

The set-up: In the break room, Sal, Joan, Harry and Ken tease Kurt and Peggy about their pending "date" to the Bob Dylan show. To clarify things, Kurt casually tells everyone he's gay. The room goes silent.

Why it's great: There's a bit of a Kuleshov effect that pits Sal's reactions against everyone else's. Peggy brushes off the news, hiding her disappointment. Ken's face literally falls. Joan blushes. Harry serves up slapstick stupor with a piece of donut still lodged in his cheek. And closeted Sal cautiously holds back, waiting to see how disgusted his colleagues will be, or perhaps how much they can tolerate. Piercing the quiet shock, Kurt looks to Peggy, tells her "eight," and pours himself a coffee. Sal is incensed, then dejected. What he works so hard to conceal is something Kurt can put bluntly without breaking a sweat. Kurt and Peggy leave, and the remaining colleagues let their homophobia loose while Sal forces himself to smirk and chuckle in all the right places. This short scene goes from funny to tragic so quickly.

Who would've liked to be there: Kitty Romano, poor thing.

The Promotion(s) – "Out of Town" (S. 03)

The set-up: Having just laid off Burt Peterson, Sterling Cooper's Head of Accounts, Lane Pryce first tells Pete he's been promoted to the position, then tells Ken the same thing, separately. Neither immediately knows they've just gotten the same promotion. Believing they're about to be the other's boss, they exchange loaded pleasantries on the elevator as they head home.

Why it's great: Pete and Ken have been neck and neck for years. On the surface, this conversation has all the trappings of a ceasefire, with a few notes of relief. They commend each other on their strengths, but you have to wonder if there are actually no hard feelings or if the cordial banter covers up each man's plans to fire the other. After all, these niceties are challenged only a few scenes later when Pete and Ken realize they're co-heads.

Who would've liked to be there: The usually impotent Lane would have enjoyed the power this scene attributed to him. Roger would have appreciated its humor. Bert (Cooper) would have relished this prelude to a good old Randian bloodbath.

Betty Knows Dick – "The Gypsy and the Hobo" (S. 03)

The set-up: At the time that this episode aired, viewers had had a good week to process Betty's discovery that Don was really Dick Whitman, and that he'd been married before. She does nothing about it until 25 minutes into "The Gypsy and the Hobo." During that time, she's played the dutiful wife at Sterling Cooper's anniversary party, endured nights alone which she suspected Don was spending with a new mistress, and had a fruitless conversation with her family lawyer. When Betty confronts Don about his past, the conversation takes hours in their narrative, and 14 minutes in real time.

Why it's great: What really cements the tension in this lengthy scene is the fact that Suzanne, Sally's teacher, is waiting for Don in his car the whole time. They're planning a romantic getaway, and she's crouched down in the seat to avoid being seen. While we're thoroughly immersed in the Don and Betty showdown, we can't help but remember the Suzanne loose end, and it makes us uncomfortable while watching the scene. Don demonstrates the depth of his disregard for others. He never considered how Betty might react if she discovered he'd hidden his true identity from her for so long, he's defensive when she calls him on it, and he completely forgets about the mistress in the car. When Don and Betty are done, he doesn't check up on Suzanne. He puts on his pajamas, brushes his teeth and goes to sleep. Come to think of it, that sort of negligence is what got him here.

Who would've liked to be there: It would make pragmatic sense to say Suzanne. But for sentimental reasons, I vote for Adam Whitman.

They Were On a Break – "Chinese Wall" & "Blowing Smoke" (S. 04)

The set-up: On the heels of losing Lucky Strike, Don begs his girlfriend and SCDP psychological consultant Faye Miller to help him poach clients. Furious that he would cross that line, she storms out. A few days later, Don has a tryst with his secretary Megan. Immediately afterwards, he goes home to find Faye waiting for him, ready to give some names.

Why it's great: It seems Don thought things were over with Faye, but if he were more skilled at relationships, he would have known it was just a fight. When he thanks Faye for eventually ceding, you can tell he feels some guilt, an emotion he never reserved for Betty. That audience-only awkwardness returns in the next episode when Faye and Don are discussing cigarette companies in the boardroom, and Megan is framed between them. You almost expect her to stop working, look up and yearn. Later, when they make a dinner date, Faye says to Don pointedly, "tell your girl to make reservations." She's an observant lady. Has she noticed any inappropriate lash-fluttering?

Who would've liked to be there: Let Peggy have this one.

Business At a High Level – "The Other Woman" (S. 05)

The set-up: Jaguar dealer Herb Rennet says he'll happily support SCDP's pitch if Ken and Pete arrange to have Joan spend a night with him. Ken assumes it's the end of the road with Jaguar. Pete thinks it's just the beginning, propositioning Joan and then the partners.

Why it's great: There are so many converging motives in this story, and no one completely comes clean, all to Joan's detriment. Pete uses Joan's open-ended refusal ("you couldn't afford it") to make it sound like she wants to negotiate pricing. Roger begrudgingly agrees to the dirty deed so long as he doesn't have to pay for it, still bitter that Joan snubbed any financial aid towards their son. Lane convinces Joan to ask for a partnership with a 5% stake instead of a lump sum, cleverly covering up his embezzlement. And Bert wants Pete to tell Joan she can still say no, but that information never gets to her. Though Don eventually tells her not to go through with it, when we revisit that heartbreaking scene, we realize it's too late. Pete orchestrates this whole affair with well-timed half-truths, and it works because he banks on everyone else prioritizing their own agendas over Joan's.

Who would've liked to be there: Ken, who even told Peggy that Jaguar was a lost cause.

Honorable mention – Love Among the Ruins (S. 03) Roger settles on the date of his daughter's wedding: November 23, 1963.

Olivia Collette is a writer based in Montreal, which means she knows (someone who knows) Jessica Paré! She's contributed to Roger Ebert's Far-Flung Correspondents, The Spectator Arts Blog, Sparksheet and others. Olivia blogs at Livvy Jams and The Scrawn.

GREY MATTERS: PERSON OF INTEREST: A Noir for the New Depression

GREY MATTERS: PERSON OF INTEREST A Noir for the New Depression


Person of Interest isn’t the sole new scripted television show in the Top Five because it’s a gold standard procedural mystery. Or because it’s a terrific grown-up look at living with regret that also finds time to explore post 9-11 hot topics of class and morality in the New Depression.

No. Person of Interest is a Top Five show with 13.5 million viewers because it’s figured out a way to use classic noir style while seeming to do something completely of this moment.

Person stars Michael Emerson, much loved for his work in Lost, as Finch, a Manhattan genius billionaire, and creator of a post 9-11 computer system, “a machine that spies on you very hour of every day,” originally designed to predict terrorist attacks.

When Finch became obsessed with the idea that The Machine should predict regular crimes, the government nixed the idea, and so Finch (somehow) took matters—and The Machine—in his own hands, but then realized he needed a partner in pre-crime enforcement.

He settled on an emotionally cauterized ex-CIA operative: "John Reese" (Jim Caviezel, best known as Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson’s gore porn movie about the Gospels). 

Not much is known about Reese aside from his remarkable military skills, detached affect, and preference for $2,000 Hugo Boss-style high couture suits worn, one assumes, out of habit from his spy days at the height of the Cheney years, killing whomever his CIA superiors order for incomprehensible reasons. The result: Reese is a hollow man, he enjoys nothing, indulges no pleasures, and is without family or friends. Caviezel works his three shades of ever-pained grey with aching, Emmy-worthy precision.

Finch favors suits as well, but more stylish numbers that made me think of recent Gucci, all business but with flair and actual color in them, suggesting a past liveliness long extinguished by . . . we don’t know what.

Like the bird whose species he suggests, Finch is wide-eyed and watchful, but thanks to an unspecified past injury, he cannot turn his head, limps, and lives in his library, alone with The Machine. It’s the most curious of pleasures, watching these true two pros feint and parry as their characters test each others’ boundaries. We all know Emerson’s skill with studied strangeness, but Caviezel has the heavier load: he has to both ‘do’ detachment with a dash of rage and occasionally freight it with the driest of drollery, without compromising Reese’s basic deadpan. Kids, don't try this at home.

Anyway, each week The Machine spits out names. They may be victims or they may be perps. Reese does whatever it takes to save or stop that person: surveillance, fighting, killing if necessary.

Eventually, an NYPD Detective named Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson) joins Finch and Reese in their pre-crime fighting, and voila—it’s the first post-9-11 non-biological family. It takes a while, but as Carter realizes the depths of corruption in her department, she also comes to accept that the man in the striking suits and his friend with the more striking technology are the more effective crime stoppers. The process took time, but Person is all about time.

But so what? Gloomy weirdoes, ex-CIA, mopey cop. How is this really that noir? And why should I care?

The reasons that Person works as noir are intertwined with the reasons you should care. Person limns a version of our world where the shadows are a little deeper, and the debasement of institutions and the people running them are more prevalent.

Another twist is the show’s look, which hop-skips past classic Expressionist chiaroscuro and lands in a New York City Sidney Lumet would recognize, the New York only natives know, which ironically adds a certain exotica to the show. We visit the Queens of kitsch Greek diners, the East Village of fusty Alphabet City coffee shops, of deep Brooklyn storage facilities where you could shoot ten people and nobody would notice for as many days. It’s the opposite of Taxi Driver’s intoxicating filth noir. It’s what's come after Manhattan’s Disney-fication—it’s blah noir.

And corruption festers in the warrens of blah. Corrupt builders, politicians, technocrats, bankers, foster care workers, Wall Street players. An entire section of the NYPD, “the HQ,” is dedicated to facilitating more corruption.

You want mobsters? Person gives you Russian, Hungarian, Polish and Italian post-NAFTA, no-rule-or-regulation mobsters. Arguably worse than them all are the strange, horrible men seen in flashbacks, the monstrous CIA of the Cheney years, who are the source of Reese’s self-loathing and who we see ordering him to commit war crimes like they were going out of business. Which I guess they were. Anyway, the casual, decade-long density of human vileness suggests something James Ellroy would have cooked up.

Even as the show insists on noir’s golden rule—there is no way out—it argues that people have choices, however limited or hard.

In the episode "Cura Te Ipsum," a drug cartel narrative carries us through the soul crisis of a good doctor (Linda Cardellini) going bad. In “Legacy,” a Latina from the projects (April Hernandez-Castillo) trying to escape a lousy past becomes a lawyer representing the wrongfully imprisoned and almost dies for her efforts. Meanwhile, a Ludlum-style spy story powers “Foe,” where a Stasi agent (Alan Dale) who cannot forget ancient slights forces Reese to confront his own bad times. 

Repeatedly, relentlessly, as per noir tradition, episodes hinge as much on the memory of bad things as they do on actual crimes. And it comes as no surprise that the show is the creation of Jonathan Nolan, whose short story "Memento Mori" was adapted by his brother Christopher into the surprise reverse-memory noir hit, Memento (2000).

For me, this memory stuff is pure catnip. As I’ve written here at Press Play, the collision of my face with a bus in 1986 caused sufficient brain damage for me to lose memory of a goodly portion of the 90s.

But seeing as we all exist in the rush of time with only memory on our side, Person has as universal a hook as you could want. And as frenzied as Person’s stories may be, the progress of its protagonists is something best engaged with in the long form offered by television, where a twenty-three episode network order allows vastly more observed and organic character growth.

Reese, on occasion, will now share the ghost of a smile. Finch, on the other hand, is processing something—but what?

We still don’t know the real deal about Finch and his relation to Ingram (Brett Cullen), the close friend with whom he created The Machine. We don’t know if Ingram was killed by the government, by one of the people he tried to save, or any number of scenarios argued about with great relish on Person of Interest fan sites.

What we dread is that Finch killed Ingram and picked Reese because he could relate to his guilt. What we hope is that Finch gained his injuries in an explosion that killed Ingram and is in a process of healing a compromised brain.

Meanwhile, Carter’s been saying she trusts Finch. But she hits that note so hard that one wonders if she’s trying to convince herself more than anyone else. Remember: this is still noir, and trust usually comes with a body count.

At its core, Person of Interest is a noir drama that tries to go beyond noir’s limiting darkness while admitting every week the difficulty of healing and redemption, and how almost anything can screw it up. And how you never know when your number’s up. Nowadays, that’s what will have to pass for optimism.

Maybe people tune in because Person is the rare show they can trust not to lie to them.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have printed his articles include Detroit Metro Times,, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

VIDEO: The Ultimate “Next on Mad Men” Preview Clip

VIDEO: The Ultimate “Next on Mad Men” Preview Clip

It's really become a perverse ritual by now for all us Mad Men fans. Every Sunday we groove on a new episode, and just as we are about to click off with the satisfaction of having taken in an exquisitely rendered hour of television, it happens.

"On the next new episode of Mad Men…"

Our ears perk up like Pavolvian dogs. We can't help ourselves. We'll devour anything, no matter how tiny or inconsequential the morsel. And they know it.


So what do we get? A 30 second string of soundbites taken totally out of context. 

"What happened?"

"I have to tell you something"

"Well that's something you don't see every day."

"Oh gosh!"

Sometimes it feels like the trained monkeys who make these montages are snickering at us through the clips: the newest one had lines like "They're like our slaves!" and "Some things never change." 

By now we're all kind of in on the joke that the joke's on us. But why should the folks at AMC have all the fun tormenting us, when we could do just as good a job? So here's our version. It's juicier, has more random lines taken out of context, is more absurd and more bluntly withholding of useful content:

Embed or share this clip. 

Compare this to the actual preview clip for next week's show and tell us which one you'd rather watch:

VIDEO: AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD re-imagined as 1970s sitcom kitsch

VIDEO: AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD re-imagined as 1970s sitcom kitsch

Editor's Note: This supposed "alternate intro" for AMC's The Walking Dead is a great example of how a mash-up can become a kind of stealth criticism. The biggest rap against the cable network's smash hit zombie series is that it's too much of a talky whitebread soap opera. In a Salon takedown, I said that the series practiced a "Hamburger helper approach to drama, padding out meager amounts of dramatic meat with bags of bland dramatic stuffing." The "stuffing" is all the scenes of characters running out episode clocks in sub-Oprah confessions and tedious arguments about their goals and motivations. 

Editor Timmy Lunsford sends up the show's shortcomings in an imaginary retro-1970s credits sequence, complete with sugary-inspirational theme music (actually the theme from Growing Pains); gratuitous irises and dissolves and lens flare effects; shots of characters silently displaying different sides of their (actually nonexistent) personalities, and period-correct fonts whooshing across the screen.  The credits for "Homeless Zombie" (getting shot through the eye with an arrow) and "Well Zombie" (being ripped in half) are the crowning touches; I like to imagine both ghouls actually reappearing each week and always dying the same deaths, rather like Rex Hamilton in another great TV credits parody sequence, the one that opened Police Squad! (In Color) — Matt Zoller Seitz

VIDEO ESSAY: It’s a MAD World – a MAD MEN Video Tribute

VIDEO ESSAY: It’s a MAD World – a MAD MEN Video Tribute

Part of the Mad Men Moments Video Essay Series

Serena Bramble, who has already created several dazzling montage tributes to film noir, Powell and Pressburger, and Steven Spielberg, among others, unveils her latest work, weaving dozens upon dozens of clips into a jazz-like succession of motifs, mapping out the resplendent world of Mad Men

Bramble's video includes an excerpt of Don Draper reading Frank O'Hara's poem "Mayakovsky" from the premiere episode of Season Two. Writer David Ehrenstein takes that scene as the starting point for the following meditation on the poem, its author the poet Frank O'Hara, and their significance to the series:

Don Draper reading Frank O’Hara’s poem "Mayakovsky" was one of the most startling yet oddly right cultural cross-references in all of Mad Men. Don is of course extremely intelligent and very much aware of the arts — but hardly what anyone would call an intellectual. His romantic exploits have brought him in passing contact with late 50’s /early 60’s New York bohemia (jazz clubs, loft parties) but he’s never evidenced a desire to be part of them. His chance encounter with an O’Hara poem is part and parcel of his magpie-like instinct to gather up information for possible future use. Had Don actually run into Frank O’Hara it’s doubtful he’d have anything to say to him. O’Hara, of course, would have been sure to put the make on a Total Babe like John Hamm.

Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) lived a life that in some ways mirrors that of the Mad Men characters. He went to Harvard (Edward Gorey was his roommate) studied music, but became profoundly interested in poetry — especially avant-garde French and Russian poets Stephane Mallarme, Arthur Rimbaud, Pierre Reverdy, Boris Pasternak and Vladimir Mayakovsky. He got a job working in the card shop at the Museum of Modern Art and in a very short space of time worked his way up to being one of the Museum’s most important curators. This Peggy-like rise was aided by the fact that he became personal friends with the Abstract Expressionists the Museum was collecting. His essays reveal him to be one of their most vocal and direct champions. It wasn’t lofty and “theoretical” with O’Hara at all. A prodigious imbiber, the fact that he could drink any abstract expressionist in the house under the table was why this very openly gay man with — in his words — “the voice of as sissy truck driver” doubtless impressed this decidedly straight and very macho crew. Here’s the greatest love poem ever written (IMO).

O’Hara wrote constantly. His powers of inspiration never waned. The poem he reads above is about Vincent Warren — a dancer in the chorus of the New York City Ballet. O’Hara had been invited by John Ashbery to accompany him on a State Department sponsored Cultural Tour of Europe (hence the cities listed in the poem). The minute he said “Yes” to the trip was the same minute he discovered that he was in love with Vincent Warren. O’Hara’s open celebration of joy in his sexual and romantic self is something Mad Men’s Sal couldn’t possibly bring himself to so much as dream of. 

Frank O’Hara died in 1966 as a result of injursies sustained when he was hit by a slow-moving dune buggy on Fire Island coming back in the wee smalls from a party. He was in mid-conversation with Babe du Jour J.J. Mitchell, when J.J. suddenly realized Frank had stopped talking. He looked back and there Frank was on the sand. He was flown back by helicopter to New York where he died in hospital while trying to comfort his distraught friends. His last words were to Willem de Kooning. “Oh Bill, you’ve come by. How nice.”

It would be nice if Mad Men makes mention of it when the time comes in the story arc.

Serena Bramble is a film editor currently pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Teledramatic Arts and Technology from Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.

David Ehrenstein is a film critic and writer whose books include Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000 and The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese. He lives in Los Angeles.