Before ER, Chicago Hope, House M.D. or Grey’s Anatomy, there was St. Elsewhere (1982-88); the ingeniously scripted, landmark and Award-winning prime time hospital dramedy created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey, about the complicated lives and loves of a troop of dedicated medical professionals toiling at Boston’s perennially beleaguered St. Eligius teaching hospital. Throughout its seven year run, behind its weather-beaten façade and crumbling interiors, St. Elsewhere played host to an ever-evolving roster of up and coming stars; Denzel Washington, Mark Harmon, Bruce Greenwood, Ronny Cox, Howie Mandel, Ernie Hudson and Tim Robbins among them. It also featured one of television’s finest ensembles headlined by Ed Flanders (as the venerable and devoted widower, Dr. Donald Westphall) and, at least in season one, David Birney (as the venereally challenged Dr. Ben Samuels) with other plum roles afforded time-honored thespian, Norman Lloyd (as proud cancer survivor, Dr. Daniel Auschlander), Christina Pickles (compassionate nurse, Helen Rosenthal), David Morse (kindly Dr. Jack Morrison), G.W. Bailey (probing psychiatrist, Dr. Hugh Beale) and William Daniels (the frequently perturbed and always caustic heart surgeon, Dr. Mark Craig).
The series was decidedly noted for its strong acting and superior narrative bloodlines; most coursing a constant flow of riveting drama, culminating in one of the most startling finales in all of series’ television: executive producers, Mark Tinker and Bruce Paltrow suggesting the entire run of the show had been imagined in the mind of an autistic savant (Chad Allen) gazing into a snow globe with the likeness of St. Eligius inside it. What set St. Elsewhere apart from similarly themed programming gone before it (Emergency, Trapper John M.D., et al) – and virtually any and all themed drivel with a pulse since attempting to step from under its shadow – was the unorthodox approach taken by co-creators, Mark Tinker and John Masius, employing a small army of writers to develop and address relative, often heartrending and occasionally harrowing issues of life and death with a delicate balance of utmost sincerity, honest emotions, and, congenial humor. Class warfare, gang-related violence and racism, domestic violence, male-on-female (and male-on-male) rape, abortion, transgender sex changes, AIDS, Down’s Syndrome, autism, suicide, insanity; these were par for the course of the show’s weekly digest – deftly handled with unusual introspection and reverence.
While hospital dramas have come and gone since – and there is little doubt more are in development to satisfy our ongoing and communal fascination with the medical profession – St. Elsewhere’s distinction remains its writing. At a time when the replacement of any cast member in a television series usually sounded the death knell for the series in totem, revealing an inherent weakness in a top-heavy reliance on ‘star power’, Tinker’s approach to St. Elsewhere would leave the audience perpetually ill at ease about the uncertainties of life. It’s a hospital, after all. Like a hotel, people come and go – and not always of their free will or on their own power. Major characters like Terence Knox’s Dr. Peter White were written out with startling revelations (after suffering a disastrous marriage and divorce, White becomes a serial rapist and is murdered in the O.R. by Nurse Shirley Daniels, played by Ellen Bry) while others, like Eric Laneuville’s Luther Hawkins graduated in their overall importance from junior grunt into supervisory positions. Indeed, TV Guide labeled St. Elsewhere ‘television’s most imaginative hour…a wildly inventive mixture of drama and humor’. It’s tough to argue with that call.
Most of what’s on TV these days is action-orientated, punctuated by shaky handheld camera work. Hence, the sincere pleasure of watching St. Elsewhere today derives from our investment in virtually every character’s true-to-life circumstances. Here, at last, is a show made about adults for adults; situation-based, though rarely catering to the soppy claptrap of artfully told romance; rather, what happens in the daily struggle to find purpose and meaning in life after love’s bloom has left and the strain of pulling twelve hour on-call shifts has worn down already frayed nerves to the bare bone. Characters who partake in casual unprotected sex, as example, are faced with venereal diseases, unwanted pregnancies and/or AIDS. Rarely, has TV shown us life as it is. St. Elsewhere takes its artistic licenses too. But it does not cheat the audience of that unusually probative and fairly documentarian style. It merely leaves the boring parts of the daily grind on the operating table. Season One of St. Elsewhere is a benchmark in television history. But like most series, the show struggled not only in the ratings, but also to find its niche and style. There are some exceptionally fine moments to recommend the debut season; starting with the pilot. Alas, with an ensemble as top-heavy as St. Elsewhere’s it was inevitable some of its roster would be cast aside; East Indian actor, Kavi Raz (as the homesick Dr. Vijay Kochar, suffering from a mild bout of culture shock) being a prime example. He’s often glimpsed, lurking from the peripheries of a narrative lifeline dedicated to another character’s story.
From the get-go, the series wastes no time establishing its archetypes: the staunchly independent, Dr. Annie Cavanero (Cynthia Sikes) confronting Dr. Morrison after one of her patient’s has gone missing. In reality, the patient died only a few moments into the first episode; Morrison, suffering from exhaustion, forgetting to file the death certificate of death. In another part of St. Eligius, Dr. Craig browbeats a reluctant patient into accepting the fact he needs triple bypass surgery. Down in the morgue, Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel) is quietly being seduced into kinky sex with pathologist, Dr. Cathy Martin (Barbara Whinnery). Cate’s a queer duck, indeed; luring Fiscus into her flagrante delicto, then refusing to entertain even the prospect of taking their sexual encounters to the next level by becoming a couple. Meanwhile, Dr. Beale is treating two psychiatric patients, affectionately nicknamed Tweety and Ralph. Each believes he/she is a bird. Tweety becomes pregnant with Ralph’s child; an unanticipated circumstance that snaps her out of her delusion. Alas, Ralph’s determination is not as strong as his love or his illness. He eventually commits suicide by jumping from the hospital’s rooftop while Beale and janitor, Luther Hawkins helplessly look on.
The series shifts focus to the enduring friendship between Chief of Staff, Dr. Donald Westphall and managing director, Daniel Auschlander. The two have known one another for decades. Despite being the elder statesman, stricken with inoperable cancer, Dr. Auschlander is the eternal optimist, frequently beating Dr. Westphall at tennis. Moreover, he is the heart of St. Eligius and an inspiration to the others. The series jumps around a little, becoming slightly unevenly paced around midseason as plot points unravel and bunch together. Fiscus moves in with Dr. Victor Ehrlich (Ed Bagley Jr.), who is not at all pleased to have a roomie. Dr. White’s strained marriage to Myra (Karen Landry) leads to an inhospitable separation. He takes up with a young nurse to ease his anxieties. Moving on: Dr. Philip Chandler (Denzel Washington) attempts to get a senior nurse fired after a clash and struggle of wills ensues. Dr. Craig takes Dr. Ehrlich under his wing. But Craig’s stern refusal to brook no nonsense leaves Ehrlich perpetually bumbling and insecure. As with most series drama, all of these disparate plotlines gradually build to the first of seven season cliffhanger finales.
Dr. Westphall’s decision to close Ward 5 after a deadly outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease meets with unfavorable press, threatening to shutter St. Eligius forever. Dr. Craig is reunited with an old college football buddy who reveals he has come to St. Eligius for a sex change operation. First year resident, Dr. Wendy Armstrong (Kim Miyori), accuses an established heart surgeon of needlessly operating on patients to fatten his wallet with kickbacks, putting Dr. Craig on the defensive until he realizes Armstrong is right. Meanwhile, Nurse Rosenthal has had quite enough when a prostitute’s stay for gallbladder surgery results in the rest of her working girl colleagues and her pimp turning Ward 5 into a veritable brothel for the more spry orderlies and patients. At approximately the same time, Dr. Cavanero learns from Dr. Samuels the distinguished British bookseller she has been treating for appendicitis is actually a well-established porn star. Dr. Morrison develops unrequited affections for a young female patient he is treating; also, more paternal concerns toward Cora (Doris Roberts), an elderly bag lady who thinks he has kind eyes, after he diagnoses her with gangrene, necessitating the amputation of both feet; something the woman absolutely refuses to do.
The season culminates with a few unexpected surprises; beginning with Dr. Chandler unable to shake the stigma of racism after an Irish teenager is treated for a terrible assault reportedly perpetrated by a gang of black hoodlums. The boy loses a kidney as a result of his beating, only to confess to doctors, Chandler and Morrison his own father is responsible for the abuse. Unbeknownst to his wife, Ellen (Bonnie Bartlett), Dr. Craig begins to contemplate an extramarital affair with visiting Hungarian surgeon, Dr. Vera Anya (Rita Zohar). Doctors Morrison and Ehrlich clash over how to treat a patient whose symptoms seem changeable; both unaware the patient is actually suffering from Baron von Munchhausen’s Syndrome. As St. Elsewhere rounds out its season finale, Dr. Morrison learns he is to be a father and his wife, Jenny (Alice Cadogan) goes into premature labor. The pressures of life overtake Dr. White’s better judgment and he begins to steal prescription medications from the dispensary to feed his increasingly out of control drug addiction.
It’s hard to imagine St. Elsewhere without its co-creators, John Falsey and Joshua Brand at the helm. And yet, the network was very wary of their darker influences on these narrative storylines, referring to the team as Dr. Death and Depression. NBC was also incredibly nervous about Brand and Falsey’s affinity for long takes; the camera following multiple characters involved in many conversations at the same time; the camera, completely omnipotent as it broke the traditional barriers of ‘the third wall’ and conventional wisdom to provide coverage in establishing two shots and close-ups. Perhaps, in retrospect, the most startling performance in Season One belongs to Tim Robbins, cast as Andrew Reinhardt, an embittered anarchist, born into a privileged family, who, upon blowing up a bank, is superficially wounded and forced to convalesce only a few rooms away from one of his victims, Catherine McCalister. She eventually dies from wounds sustained in the blast. Later, Catherine’s husband murders Reinhardt at point blank range as he is being wheeled to admitting for his discharge.
The totally inexperienced Robbins gives a riveting star turn in these all too brief three episodes that bear his presence, riddled with a deft blend of cynical humor and perverse disregard for the sanctity of human life. By his own accounts; Robbins was a self-professed arrogant piece of work, who knew not how to get into character except to jump immediately into the part by playing it full on, both while the cameras were rolling and in between takes. This ‘attitude’ – plus Robbins’ misguided outing to see The Clash perform the night before his first day of shooting, making him late by several hours on the set, did not exactly ingratiate him to the rest of the cast or his producers and director. Ultimately, Robbins recognized the importance of doing the series. Indeed, the tape he received afterward became his calling card in Hollywood for bigger opportunities.
At the end of Season One, St. Elsewhere’s Nielsen Ratings were hardly enviable. The show wasn’t even listed in the top 50; a far cry from TV Guide’s 2011 poll, rating the series #6 in all-time great television programming and its remarkable series finale (the aforementioned ‘snow globe’) #12 amongst the greatest moments in TV history. At the end of Season One, Falsey and Brand received the double-edged news; while the series they had created had been picked up for a second go around, Mark Tinker and Bruce Paltrow would now be assuming the creative reins. NBC also urged set designers to redress portions of the drab St. Eligius in more becoming colors – presumably to brighten the atmosphere. Finally, they encouraged their new producing team to keep ‘long takes’ to a bare minimum. NBC may have thought that without Falsey and Brand they would have more say in the overall arc and direction of the series, pushing it towards lighter fare. But producer, Bruce Paltrow ensured the high standards set by Falsey and Brand in Season One endured for the run of show. Today, St. Elsewhere remains beloved amongst fans old enough to recall its first run in prime time. For decades thereafter, it was in steady syndication as late night filler, its theme by David Grusin still instantly recognizable at a listen. With the proliferation of cable channels, St. Elsewhere’s permanence as a cultural artifact and television icon seems even more readily assured; truly – one for the ages.
Alas, we cannot seem to convince anyone at 2oth Century-Fox, the custodians of the MTM television library, of as much. Since, 2006, only Season One of St. Elsewhere has made it to home video. The results are questionable to say the least. The show’s cinematography, variably lensed by Marvin L. Gunter, John McPherson, Rick F. Gunter and Sol Negrin, was never intended to be slick and stylish, but gritty and rough around the edges. Alas, what Fox Home Video has furnished herein is grainy, dull and uninspiring to a fault. I am still trying to deduce the ‘conventional wisdom’ applied when authoring these discs; compressing four episodes on Side A of a flipper disc, and only 2 episodes on Side B. Why not three and three, to even out the compression ratio and possibly alleviate, or avoid altogether, the horrendous digitized noise incurred on a good many of these episodes? St. Elsewhere was photographed on film stock, not digital tape. So the results ought to have yielded a very film-based look with solidly rendered grain and rich colors. Instead, we have perpetually washed out and faded colors; flesh tones flat and pasty pink.
As I said before; St. Elsewhere was never intended to look ‘pretty’ – but what’s here is fairly muddy and thoroughly unimpressive – even ugly, at times. The inconsistent rendering of indigenous grain is appalling. We get moments where grain almost entirely disappears, followed by scenes where it has been artificially enhanced by the lack of proper compression authoring to the point where it breaks apart fine detail and is thoroughly distracting to the action taking place within the scene. Awful! Just awful! The mono audio ranges from adequate to subpar, a few episodes having a decidedly muffled characteristic. St. Elsewhere deserves much better! It also deserves to be reissued in its entirety on home video! Representatives at Fox…are you listening?!?
All of these seasons, please – and remastered on single-sided discs. If you’re unwilling to do so, farm it out to a third party like Shout! Factory. To be fair, Fox has actually spent money on this debut season; gathering a few cast members and creative personnel for three featurettes. But I am at a loss to explain the logic behind this, since the featurettes are all less than ten minutes in length and border on absurdly truncated sound bites, linked together by inserts of scenes from Season One. Bottom line: St. Elsewhere remains one of television’s finest hours in absentia on home video. Frankly, it is a travesty to think its successors, ER and Grey’s Anatomy already given their due, but no such consideration forthcoming for the grand-daddy that started it all. Shocking! Shameful! And honestly, very – very – disappointing! Come on Fox. More St. Elsewhere!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)