11 May 2000 | Surfer-23
An addictive and well-written show.
This series concerned St. Eligius, a hospital in a less fashionable section of Boston, and the day-to-day lives of its staff and patients. The institution had acquired its unfortunate nickname from statements made by doctors at other institutions to the effect that, if patients could not afford treatment in a respectable hospital, they would have to go to "St. Elsewhere." Nevertheless, St. Eligius consistently showed itself to be a place full of concerned and highly skilled medical personnel.
The central character was Donald Westphall, the chief of medicine and also the one in charge of the new residents who came in every year (St. Eligius was, among other things, a noted teaching hospital). He was depicted primarily as a caring, understanding, and reserved (even repressed) individual, but he could also be seen slugging it out occasionally with the administration, his residents, and even his colleagues if the situation required it
The other two "old-timers" who were present throughout the run of the series were Daniel Auschlander, the chief of services, who had already been diagnosed with cancer in the first episode but wouldn't seem to die (though he certainly talked about dying enough) and Mark Craig, the brilliant and extremely pompous heart surgeon who always said exactly what was on his mind to everyone, regardless of the reaction it got. Craig`s favorite target by far was young Victor Ehrlich, a tall, blonde California surfer dude who also happened to be a skilled surgeon. Ehrlich, though, was content to good-naturedly absorb the barrage of insults as best he could and go on learning from the master. (Ehrlich, unfortunately, was only slightly more adept than his mentor in interpersonal relations, and his conversations with other residents frequently ended with them telling him, "You're a pig, Ehrlich," and walking off.)
Other main characters in the sizeable cast included people every part of the hospital, from the residents to the regulars at the nurse's stations to people in custodial services to patients to administrators. As in real life, doctors came and went every couple of years, with some making greater impact than others. Indeed, the "star" of the series, David Birney, was gone after a single season. (It should be noted that, though the bulk of the hospital staff consisted of men, there were also women in highly visible and well-thought out roles as well, or were at times anyway.)
"St. Elsewhere" was much more soap opera-like than "Hill Street Blues," and this effectively drew viewers in and kept them in year after year. In the last seasons, there were radical changes in plotline (the hospital was bought by a large corporation, which brought with it brand-new management styles), and the cast seemed to change more frequently. There were also more episodes that tried to stretch beyond the established formula of the series. One flashback episode, for example, showed the young resident Mark Craig sucking up to HIS mentor, which was a delight to watch. The final episode proved to be the most strange and surreal, and left most longtime viewers dumbfounded.
For me, the series was marred slightly by that fact that, as in previous series created by Bruce Paltrow ("Lou Grant" and "The White Shadow"), the producer's politics too often became an integral part of the series. In practically every episode, it seemed, there would be a conversation between a doctor and a patient`s relative in which the latter would inform the physician about the percentage of Americans affected by some unfair law, or the exact number of cases of such-and-such a societal problem that were reported in the previous four fiscal years. The intent was good; had it occurred less frequently, it would have been far less annoying.
When it appears in syndication, "St. Elsewhere" can easily become an addiction, even if you have seen episodes three or four times already. The writing was at a very high level, the characterizations were three-dimensional and complex, and the medical situations intriguing. One becomes very interested in how the characters deal with their problems, and what twists and turns their lives will take. There is sufficient comedy mixed in with the serious plots to allow the easing of your pain after serious conflicts have arisen, and there are even some inside TV jokes thrown in once in a while for those who can catch them. Yes, there is far too much melodrama sometimes, but even that can be fun.
("St. Elsewhere" is often mentioned in the same breath with "Hill Street Blues." They were both hour-long, big-cast dramas of the 1980s, both with several plots going on at the same time, both were made by the same production company, and both were part of the "revitalization" of NBC, which by the end of the decade was not at all the "joke" network it had been ten years before. "St. Elsewhere" and "Hill Street Blues" were fine programs, though "Hill Street" was easily the best drama of the decade.)