Can American TV, and ER, Be Art?

Two British critics debate the merits of America's healthiest export


| January/February 2000


Dear Kathryn,

Wednesday nights (when ER is on) begin with skepticism and end in rapture. I can't believe that the program is going to meet my art-critical standards, but it does. The traumas and dramas, the jokes and intimacies of County General Hospital emergency room--the ER in question--sweep me up. The series knows its limitations, but it is art of a very high order indeed.

I don't have to take sides in the elite versus popular culture wars to champion ER. It is enough to draw attention to its excellence. It has evolved a distinctive aesthetic, a distinctive feel and vision. It moves through a wide array of moods--from farce to romance, from pathos to high drama. Sometimes it is clever--witness the allusions to Reservoir Dogs in the episode directed by Quentin Tarantino. It flirts with kitsch, it dabbles in parody, but it knows when to stop.

Characters like Romano or Jerry may come close to caricature, but art has a place for this--and here they are brilliantly done. And the central characters, with their all too human foibles, their imperfect beauty and life-saving zeal, draw us in. The minor characters, too, are invariably played by the strong character actors so common in the United States. ER takes us out of ourselves and, like the best fiction, gives us contact with a heightened reality.

You have written about George Eliot, and I would hesitate to compare ER to her infinitely subtle novels. Yet the series has some of the qualities of the 19th-century novel. Both have dramatic plots, comic minor characters, and keen social observation; and both are marked by moral seriousness. Didn't Dickens' novels first appear in serial form? If ER is sometimes sentimental, wasn't he?

America is a funny place. It can be the crass, corrupt, and unfeeling country depicted by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities, where rich and poor live in separate worlds. But it also remains in many respects the most democratic of countries. Status counts for little. This is the aspect of American life expressed in ER. It depicts men and women, black and white, working together; and it sets out quite consciously to drive home certain lessons--about health and violence, but also about fairness and respect. In the United States, where broadcasting has become ghettoized, it is almost the only show watched by blacks and whites. Blacks don't watch Friends, whites don't watch Moesha, but both tune in to ER.