Like my favourite movie cyborg who, for reasons I’ve never quite grasped, speaks in an Austrian accent, I’m back. But as I return to work after contributing to the global overpopulation problem, AKA maternity leave, one of my favourite literary passages feels especially relatable. It’s from Bridget Jones’s Diary, about the horrors of going back to work after the Christmas break, during which you’ve just lain about the house, eating and drinking anything you can reach from the sofa: “Now, suddenly, we are all supposed to snap into self-discipline like teenage greyhounds.”
As it happens, I am writing this column a little later than expected because as I was striding, teenage greyhound-style, into the office, feeling like I’d got this parenthood/working thing nailed, Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves playing on my mental soundtrack, I looked down at my outfit, carefully picked out to convey that “I’m totally unchanged by the baby” vibe. Except, I realised, one side of my dress was now soaked with milk (mine) and the other was covered in sick (the baby’s). There are five ages of man; I am in the “realising you have turned into a character in a Sharon Horgan sitcom” one.
I wouldn’t like to give the impression that all I’ve done for the past four months was sit on the sofa, eating and drinking. No, I’ve also been watching TV. A lot of TV. You see, my maternity leave coincided with an old show becoming available to stream in the UK. A show I hadn’t watched in a long time and thought about even less. That show is ER.
Reader, I binged on ER. “Wow, my iPad’s battery runs down fast these days,” I’d think, as I fired up my sixth episode that day. At one point I watched so much ER I thought I might have to go to the actual ER, because I had a migraine from staring at a screen for nearly all my waking hours. (I didn’t go, but only because I knew it would be such a disappointing experience, what with Doctors Greene, Ross, Benton, Carter, Lewis, Weaver and Kovač not really being there.)
It’s remarkable how little ER is discussed these days, especially compared with those other 90s blockbuster shows, Seinfeld and, most of all, Friends. ER was just as big, and yet even though this September marked its 25th anniversary, there has been none of the fanfare accorded to Friends. And this despite the fact that ER looks way more modern than almost all its contemporaries.
Anyone born after 1990 may have got the impression from the endless articles about the shocking unwokeness of Friends that 90s TV was just a wasteland of whiteness: wealthy middle-class people leading heteronormative lives, pausing only to crack an occasional homophobic joke. Well, my dear millennials and gen Z-ers, allow me to direct you to ER. Aside from its notably, and realistically, inclusive cast (a black female boss; a disabled gay female boss), in just its first two seasons ER dealt with homophobia, transphobia, Aids, racism and white-collar poverty. While US politicians were still sneering about the crack epidemic among poor African-Americans, ER pointedly featured white characters from all social classes addicted to opioids. It even got into #MeToo, two decades ahead of time, through the character of Dr Ross (George Clooney, duh), who sleeps with a medical student.
All this makes ER sound very po-faced, when my baby and I can tell you that it is just really, really good. But while I can talk at length about ER’s best moments (in order: when Dr Greene causes the death of a woman during childbirth; when Dr Ross rescues a boy from a drain; and when Dr Carter is stabbed), there is something about the show generally that feels especially comforting right now.
Lucy Mangan bids farewell to a ER, the show that revolutionalised TV drama
ER is, as the cliche goes, about the adults in the room, and unlike more recent medical dramas – Gray’s Anatomy, House – each episode is as invested in the patients as it is the doctors. Yes, the doctors all have their individual emotional dramas, but I’m a lot less interested in those this time round than I am in watching them just do their jobs. Look at them, these selfless and brilliant grownups, trying to fix the broken people! Watch as they turn down high-paying jobs in fancy practices so they can help those who really need them! It’s a show that celebrates empathy and expertise; against a backdrop of endless news from President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson, two men who are decidedly lacking in either of those qualities, ER is almost erotica. Some friends tell me they get this from watching old episodes of The West Wing, but that show feels a little too on the nose to me right now, a little too sad-making. So instead, I watch Dr Benton shout at Dr Carter as they crack open some unconscious guy’s ribs, and I feel that bit more hopeful about mankind.
It’s also a kind of relief to opt out of the exhausting race to keep up with whatever the current prestige box set du jour is, sinking instead into the delights of a show made in 1994. So I’m maintaining my strict regimen of at least four episodes of ER a night. I might be back at work, but that doesn’t mean I have to snap entirely back into the real world. Just be grateful I cleaned the sick off my dress.
• This article was amended on 9 November 2019 to remove an incorrect reference in the headline to ER being a “sitcom”.