Wednesday, April 1, 2009

ER and the Johns: Readers Face the Ends of Their Eras

Two communities of readers are experiencing the end of an era this first quarter of 2009: the literary followers of Johns Updike and Cheever, and the tv fans of Michael Crichton’s ER. Each community was brought together in a shared passion in large cultural numbers in a way that we won’t see again. For ER, at its height, that meant an average of 32 million people a week.

I see our two groups of readers as completely equal. In a long, impassioned piece in the NYTimes magazine in 1995, then NYTimes Book editor Charles McGrath declared “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel,” years before The Sopranos and The Wire. He was reacting to the second generation of serialized prime-time dramas, like NYPD Blue and ER.

“Watching television is in many ways a private, solitary activity -- almost like reading. But watching television is also what we do as a nation; millions and millions of us tune in together, at the same time, to the same shows. Television is something, maybe the only thing, that all of us have in common. . . . When I went back to work the next day I had something to talk about -- how Andy was doing, whether Doc Greene and his wife would get back together -- and I felt connected.”

McGrath also extols the quality and writerly beauty of dialogue on these A-list shows, and the interesting literary backgrounds of the writers and producers behind them.

And that’s why it struck me as fitting, if you will, that ER is leaving the air in the shadow of the attention to the death of John Updike and the ensuing attention to John Cheever.

The Words-on Paper-Guys

John Updike died in January. The poignant posthumous publication of his poems in the New Yorker and his review of Blake Bailey’s Cheever biography are a special coda to his body of work. The March publication of the life of Cheever, one of the concentric circles in the literary universe in which Updike was a sun, broadened and underscored the cultural attention paid to the passing of John the Younger.

They were our adept chroniclers of the postwar suburbs with enormous abilities to capture LIFE between men and women with exceptional, frightening, unblinking, honed attention. But as important as their talent, they believed—with all the import of that word—in what Cheever called the “invincibility of literature,” and they understood the role of professional men of letters. That’s part of what their fans were attracted to.

Their postwar readers saw their own drab lives in the pages of “The Enormous Radio” and Rabbit, Run transformed by the power of art into something worth knowing, worth contemplating. The Johns’ writing deeply enriched the lives of their readers, and maybe helped to dispel some of the fog we all live in. The readers in turn felt a part of a literary community, not as easily in the days before the Internet, but just as certain. The emotional connection to their work was deep and spanned generations. Who is today’s equivalent of these literary icons?

The TV Drama as Novel

The watchers of ER will be gathering on Thursday to read the last episode in a 15-year long story about doctors in an emergency room in Chicago. Few series have the power to stay for so long. The list is a familiar one: Bonanza, 14 seasons; Dallas, 13 seasons; Hawaii 5-0 and NYPD Blue, 12; Cheers and MASH, 11.

We ER readers read and embraced ER’s groundbreaking semiotics as enthusiastically as the first readers of Joyce’s Ulysses did.

Diane Werts captures the power of ER in a piece in Newsday:

“Much of what ER pioneered has become so commonplace, we don't appreciate the show's pacesetting. We take for granted walk-and-talk, intensity editing, continuous sets, widescreen framing, point-of-view shooting, time-shift storytelling with interwoven flashbacks, ambient sound and moody montage.

“But all in one place? With heart-rending characters often delivering a topical wallop?"

The technical side was balanced with first-rate acting, and deeply engaging characters of Benton, and Carter, and Greene.

Charles McGrath:
“A small episode in last season's finale, involving an end-stage AIDS patient, his mother and his lover, and their letting him go, can't have taken up more than a few minutes of air time; yet in its brevity and directness, and in the honesty of its details, it was a more affecting evocation of the AIDS crisis than Jonathan Demme's overblown "Philadelphia," say. Its power came from the fact that this little moment happened in the middle of a lot of other moments -- almost as in life. Similarly, a brief, silent stretch at the end of the botched-delivery episode [“Love’s Labors Lost”], when Dr. Greene, exhausted, fighting tears, rides the El home in a cold winter dawn, achieved a remarkably understated eloquence. The show has a knack for dramatizing private moments -- for sneaking up on them when both we and the characters are most worn down and vulnerable.

“But the real reason for E.R.'s success, I think, is that it recognizes that such private moments are so few and so hasty.”

There is nothing more inherently frightening than an emergency room. We all know fiction from reality, especially where our own life and death is concerned. But storytelling is one way that we confront our fears, and the stories of ER where often cathartic because they rang so true to life. They allowed us to look at the most frightening, painful side of the human condition from the safety of our living rooms.

I did stop watching after Mark Greene died. Unlike Cheers, where I made the transfer from Diane to Rebecca, I never got into the new characters. I followed Carter and Abby for a while, and then drifted away.

But like many old readers, I’ve been following these last episodes before the series finale. Alan Sepinwall, as usual, has given the returning flock a place to connect. Reading these comments is the strongest testimonial to the power of this series.

ER and the works of the Johns are, by their nature, accessible to the ages. And each has a discernible and important legacy.

What’s different, what will not be repeated, is the broad cultural reach of these pieces of art, as art and entertainment continue to be more personalized, more niche.

Diane Werts again, speaking of being an ER viewer for its entire run:

“We were all in it together then. As we might be when it ends. It won't happen again.”