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Winning Ways and Means of 'ER,' 'Cybill'

HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

December 20, 1995|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Here is a tale of two series I should have written about earlier this year but didn't. So sue me.

These are the best of times for "ER," high atop the Nielsen ratings this season while anchoring an impregnable Thursday night lineup on NBC. They are worse times for "Cybill," the brazenly witty CBS comedy doing just so-so after relocation to the coveted Sunday time slot after "60 Minutes" that was formerly occupied by "Murder, She Wrote."

"ER" and "Cybill" are not as unrelated as you might think. The hospital characters of "ER" dispense treatment, the characters of "Cybill" need treatment.

I joined most critics in warmly embracing "ER" when it premiered last season. And to boot, I even watched it some afterward.

This season, I didn't watch it at all because of my devotion to "Murder One," the gleaming, brainy crime drama from Steven Bochco that ABC threw against "ER" and the CBS News series "48 Hours."

"Murder One" was designed to follow a single murder case through an entire season, making it a risk for ABC. Miss one episode, you were confused. Miss two episodes, you definitely weren't in Kansas anymore. Tape it, and you had to make time for it later.

Immediately hooked on "Murder One" and its dark, unheroic characters, I bid goodbye to "ER" and its heroes. As it turned out, most of America never said hello to "Murder One," whose lowly ratings forced ABC to yank it last month in advance of redeployment at 10 p.m. Mondays in January, after the conclusion of "Monday Night Football." Just how many new viewers will be drawn to "Murder One" next month after missing a slew of prerequisite episodes will be another tale for another time.

It's much easier catching up on "ER," which on Thursday night reruns its Christmas episode from last season that opens with a nearly drowned boy arriving at Chicago's County General Memorial Hospital ("I'm not getting a pulse!" shouts nurse Carol Hathaway), finds guest Rosemary Clooney roaming the halls singing carols and ends with a rooftop transfer of donor organs to a chopper bound for Cincinnati.

The theme and its imagery--death imbuing life on Christmas Eve--is vintage "ER," for no series is better at pushing emotional buttons in ways that teeter perilously on the corny edge without falling over.

The "ER" caseload per hour is crushing. So these quiet pauses for introspection, along with various personal traumas and romantic interludes, are ever the more dramatic in juxtaposition with emergency-room healers and their patients hurtling down hospital corridors thick with humanity, raw feelings and punchy dialogue ("Stabbing coming in!") to the heavy beat of pulsating music--sequences so wired that you want to suggest that next time they try the decaf.

The frenzy generally works, never more so than in last month's episode in which Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney)--the troubled, self-destructive hunk of a pediatrician with a golden heart for kids--spent much of the hour tenaciously trying to save a 12-year-old boy (also nearly drowned) trapped in a storm drain during a driving rain.

Wow! Clooney's acting, Neal Baer's script and producer Christopher Chulack's direction made the hour a suspenseful, transfixing blow away--and one that forged an uneasy, fleeting alliance between emergency medicine and local TV news, their clashing agendas in this case belied by a shared reliance on speed.

After finally freeing and reviving the boy, Ross rushed him to the hospital by enlisting a news chopper hovering above. What a sight, with TV news at once the boy's savior and his predatory nemesis in beaming back live footage of the doctor working furiously over his hypothermal patient inside "Chopper 5" while being pestered for information by a reporter doing a running commentary. Baer knows his TV news, for before the chopper landed, the station had created a theatrical title for its live scoop: "Rescue in Action."

At the hospital, Ross and a support team continued laboring over the critical boy while, in an adjoining area, another team worked just as frantically to save a girl about the same age. He lived, she died.

No subtleties here, no nuances or shadings. Everything on the surface. Yet it was television at its mightiest and most thrilling, and reason enough to rejoin the "ER" bandwagon.

Much roomier these days is the bandwagon for "Murder, She Wrote," the venerable mystery whose once lofty ratings dove dramatically this season in its new time slot opposite a couple of those hit NBC series ("Friends," "The Single Guy") that precede "ER."

No wonder, then, that Angela Lansbury and her mature groupies didn't like it much when CBS exiled "Murder, She Wrote" across the planet to Thursdays at 8 p.m., far, far from the beneficial afterglow of dominant "60 Minutes."

Moving her show worked out fine for me, however. It made me a devoted fan of "Cybill," now occupying Lansbury's former 8 p.m. Sunday time slot.

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