Exactly twenty years ago, “ER” was nominated for its first Golden Globe. It didn’t win, and in its fifteen seasons that followed it only ended up winning the coveted golden statuette once (in 1998, for Anthony Edwards). But it will forever go down in history as pioneering television, as one of the best series in the history of the medium, and as my personal all-time favorite television show.
You will see the term “in the history of television” repeated in this blog multiple times. That is because “ER” was a trailblazer, and much of what it did was either a first, one of the earliest, or one of the best to date.
“ER” was one of the very first shows to combine serial and episodic elements. It featured human stories through its layered, never pontificating, never overly sentimental medical storylines, along with the series-long story arcs and emotional growth of the doctors and nurses we came to love as our own family.
Impeccable character construction combined with superb acting to create some of the most complex, well-rounded, interesting characters in scripted drama to date. They had secrets, which were doled out to us in crumbs, like little prizes for our loyal—sometimes obsessive—viewing. Much like in real life with our loved ones, the more we got to know them, the more they revealed themselves to us, the less we needed them to say. A look, a touch, a tell—we knew them oh so well.
“ER” is celebrating twenty years of excellence, and we are going to celebrate the fabulous women of the ER; the women we wanted as our girlfriends, our best friends, our sisters, our mothers, and naturally, our doctors and nurses.
Since the show speaks best for itself, I combined many videos in this post, using my insight only as short introductions into characters who are way too intricate for one blog post. Unfortunately, many of my favorite scenes are not on YouTube (I should know. Warner Brothers closed my YouTube account a decade ago for being the main supplier of “ER” videos online!). So we’ll have to settle for what I could find, along with a few videos of my own.
In order of personal preference, here are the women of “ER:”
At number 11 we have Nurse Samantha Taggart (Linda Cardellini). Sam was a single mother, a tiny but mighty chick. She was tough as nails, but had a kind heart. And her relationship with her grandmother Gracie (played by the fabulous Lois Smith), a kooky but wise independent spirit, was one of the best things about her.
At number 10, we have Doctor Jing-Mei (Deb) Chen (Ming-Na Wen). She was an Asian woman with a penchant for black men, much to the dismay of her old-fashioned father. Chen had to make some unpopular choices in her life, like give up her baby for adoption (despite the fact that financially stable mature women are not “supposed” to do that; that’s only something poor teen moms are encouraged to do), and she never apologized for them.
At number 9, we have Physician’s Assistant Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben). Jeanie was an African-American straight married woman who contracted HIV from her husband long before AIDS for anyone but homosexual men was a “popular” idea. Jeanie managed to adopt a homeless HIV-diagnosed baby and remarry after divorcing her unfaithful husband.
At number 8, we have Dr. Maggie Doyle (Jorja Fox). Doyle didn’t stay in the ER for long, but she made her mark as one of the earliest out and proud lesbian characters in TV history.
At number 7, we have Dr. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield). Stringfield was in the original cast, but chose to leave halfway into the third season, only to see the light and come back in the eighth season. Her storylines with her sister Chloe (Kathleen Wilhoite), who ran away and left Susan to take care of her baby niece, Little Susie, and her unfulfilled love for Mark Greene were her most compelling.
At number 6, we have Med Student Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin). Lucy came to the ER young and naïve (when she was asked to take care of a man who had a carrot in his anus, she infamously asked, “How did he swallow a whole carrot?”). Unfortunately, she left the ER just as young, but no longer naïve.
Lucy gave “ER” arguably the most chilling and shocking scene in its entire run.
At number 5, we have Dr. Neela Rasgotra (Parminder Nagra). Neela, a young Indian doctor, again from a more traditional background, arrived to the ER as a sweet, insecure nerd, but ended up as one of the most kick-ass surgeons in the hospital.
At number 4, we have Nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies). Nurse Hathaway made her entrance in the pilot episode as she was wheeled into the ER on a stretcher after a suicide attempt. She was not supposed to make it. But audiences loved her so much that the show’s creators decided to save her. And thank goodness for that! The Carol/Doug love story is to this day possibly the most beloved coupling on the show, second only, maybe, to Abby and Luka, even though the couple officially left during the show’s sixth season.
Carol was the funny, loving, smart and motherly nurse everyone loved. Even though she left the show to follow Doug to Seattle in the sixth season, her spirit always lingered in the hallways and hearts of the people she left behind.
At number 3, we have Nurse Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney). We first met Abby when she helped deliver Carol’s twins as a maternity nurse. She was then sent to the ER and before we knew it, she became a doctor, as well as the central character for the remainder of the show’s run.
Abby was a hot mess. She was a recovered addict, her mom and her brother were bi-polar, and she messed up her relationships on a regular basis. But she was also the hero of the ER, the woman to whom everyone came to for advice, help and validation.
For example, in one of her most powerful storylines, Abby got herself in too deep when she helped a neighbor (Christina Hendricks) who was the victim of domestic violence.
(The video I had for this scene has meanwhile been taken down for copyrights infringement. Warner Brothers strike again!)
One of Abby’s most compelling storylines saw her dealing with her bipolar mother, played by the superb actress Sally Field.
At number 2, we have Dr. Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston). Dr. Corday was a British surgeon, who could cure everyone with her smile and the mere sound of her accent. She gave “ER” my personal favorite relationship, the marriage between her and Mark Greene, the male hero of the show. Together, they gave the show its most beautiful death in television history.
Dr. Corday left the ER in the eleventh season, but returned in its final season as the Chief of Trauma Surgery at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. She was powerful, but unassuming; funny, but formidable. She was the perfect woman and the perfect doctor.
At number 1, we have Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes). Dr. Weaver arrived at the ER in the second season to take it out from under Greene’s messy hands and whip it into shape. From the moment she walked in the door it became apparent that she was by far one of the most complex characters I would ever see on screen.
She was strict, but goofy; stern, but sensitive. She hid about 99% of what truly went on in her head. And throughout the seasons, mostly thanks to Abby, her best friend and confidant, we got to get glimpses of about 10% of that. The rest stayed hidden and was only alluded to with a smile or a sad look, with a puzzled frown or a quiver of the lip.
When Kerry came out of the closet as a gay woman in season 7, not only did she become one of the most important lesbian characters in television history, but she also brought the show two of its most dramatic relationships.
The first, with Kim Legaspi (Elizabeth Mitchell), was fraught with shame and secrecy. Kim eventually was accused unfairly of sexual harassment by a troubled young girl and was driven out of the hospital.
The second, with Sandy Lopez (Lisa Vidal), ended in tragedy, when the firefighter died in the line of duty, leaving Kerry to fight for custody of their son.
This might have outraged lesbian viewers if it had been written today, and granted, we weren’t thrilled about it back then either. But at the time, these were important stories to tell and lessons to teach a mostly homophobic society.
What’s more, Sandy was just one of many tragedies; Kerry was not singled out. Elizabeth lost Mark, Carter lost his baby, Romano had a helicopter crash on him, etc.
Kerry Weaver left the show right before its end, and she got a beautiful send-off. She basically rode into the sunset with her son and her new lover Courtney (Michelle Hurd), but not before giving us a steamy kiss between the two.
And that, folks, is how you treat your lesbian character!
The show has seen many fabulous female short-term characters and guest stars. To name just a few:
Cynthia Nixon, who played a stroke patient in one of the best “ER” episodes ever.
Martha Plimpton as a drug-addict expecting mother.
Maria Bello, the hot pediatrician, Dr. Anna Del Amico.
Penny Fuller (a dear friend of my wife’s and mine), as the cello playing Mrs. Constantine (a role for which she was nominated for an Emmy).
Susan Sarandon, as the grandmother of an organ donor.
Lucy Liu, as an Asian immigrant whose son had AIDS.
Kirsten Dunst as a homeless teenager.