22 December 2006 | DeanNYC
Valentine To A Heart Surgeon And Staff of a Boston Teaching Hospital
For a moment, let's forget the final five minutes of this series. Take the 136.9 episodes presented. This was a new sort of television. Granted, "Hill Street Blues" first came up with the large ensemble cast, the mix of humor and drama and set the stage for this program, but St. Elsewhere went so far beyond Hill Street that at the end, the two series didn't even mildly resemble each other.
Really, the notable thing that hooks a television viewer and a pop culture junkie about St. Elsewhere were all of the references. Almost like a game of Trivial Pursuit while you watched the action, the writers of the program constantly dropped references to other classic television programs, paid tribute to the past roles of their stars and placed all sorts of humorous "in jokes" for its viewers to get along the way. I don't know that all of them would still have meaning for someone viewing the show today, but maybe? The fact was the writers were letting us know that we were just like them, TV addicts, and that made a Velcro like seal between the program and its fans.
That was all just the sizzle. The steak was a great, solid cast and taut storytelling. Clearly this was the best show of the 1980s, and quite possibly the best hospital show in history.
"First rate people in a second rate place" was how the characters were described, and really, you can't deny it. St. Eligius had a lot of problems throughout its fifty plus years as a Boston teaching hospital, but no matter how convoluted their personal lives became, you always got the feeling that at least the doctors and nurses always cared about their patients, and that's why checking in was not just an addiction but a borderline obsession!
Most notable of the players were William Daniels in his role as the bombastic, pedantic and terribly Bostonian Cardiologist, Dr. Mark Craig, along with his foil, Ed Begley Jr. as his ne'er do well protégé, Dr. Victor Ehrlich. An almost Laurel and Hardy style relationship was created with these two (though physically, perhaps Mutt & Jeff is a better reference), and many of the scenes they played together were some of the most hilarious of any SITCOM of the era!
But it's difficult to truly single out any one acting performance, when you see who else was doctoring... future two time Oscar winner Denzel Washington on staff, Howie Mandel out of his zany stand-up style to play it straight and he managed! The elegance of Norman Lloyd as Medical Chief Auschlander, and the tragic sadness of Ed Flanders as Westphall, which, even more sadly, was echoed in his real life. Bonnie Bartlett, Christina Pickles, Sagan Lewis... a true gem of a cast and everyone contributed something amazing.
In addition, the guest stars list reads like a Hollywood who's who! Just check the "episodes cast" button if you don't believe me.
There were some firsts for the show: first television character to get the AIDS virus was Dr. Bobby Caldwell. Inexplicably, they also had the first character to be "cured" of AIDS, but the less said about that, the better! Dr. Westphall's bare ass was the first ever seen on a prime time network program. And, long before "24" existed, there was the digital clock on this series!
Forgive the final plot twist, which to me was a dig more at the network that canceled them than the fans that supported them. This show is filled with small treasures and characters that make them shine like diamonds. If only every show could be as good as this one. Then again, were that the case, I'd probably never do anything but watch television!