The Unwatchable Dead-Babyness of E.R.
Issue #57, October 2001
Wednesday, August 29, 2001, 1:40pm
I start writing on my lunch hour. My office has no windows and a Vitamin-D-sucking overhead lamp. The phones ring. A lot. Instant Messenger pings. Constantly. Usually I like to get out a bit and wander through the light, but today I'm choosing to stay here an extra 3600 seconds. Lunacy.
I must be stimulated by the prospect of talking articulately about the date that I just made with my television for tomorrow night.
I'm planning to watch the worst show on television: E.R.
Must Flee T.V.
Phones are off. Instant Messenger, off. Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" hums quietly on NetRadio (performed by Nigel Kennedy, alas: there's just no escaping the wild man of the classical violin, and if you don't know who or what I'm talking about then please trust me when I say that you're happier than if you do). The lava lamp burbles redly next to my monitor.
I'm happy, until I start thinking about E.R.
Confession time. I've never much liked the show. Having made more than 20 genuine, real-life, late-night treks to the hospital as both patient and courier, the E.R. is more to me than just a locus for fiction. I've sat for a geologic age or three cuddling my sick wife while waiting for her to see a doctor, getting angry as the time ticks by, angrier, angriest, only to feel the hot balloon of rage in my stomach deflate to flaccid acceptance when the urgent paramedics wheeled in a man who'd set himself on fire. They rushed him past, a blur of charcoal-skin and fried blood, and I averted my eyes but could not close my ears. He howled. Not a dog's midnight cry of "I'm all alone" or a footballer's shout when he and he alone fumbles the ball and loses the big game. This was Lear's howl, howl, howl, howl, oh, you are men of stone. An animal being tortured by a sadist with a knife and a lot of time on his hands. A tidal wave of pain flooding the shore of his nervous system. Suddenly, my wife's medical problem — acutely real though it was and pointed enough that it could not wait until the doctor's office opened seven interminable hours later that morning — became endurable, at least for a little while longer.
Noah Wyle was nowhere to be seen.
I watched E.R. a few times the first season. It exhausted me. Then it ended, leaving me drained but insomniacally revved at 11:00pm.
So I'm not a fan. But before, if I'd wanted to, I could have sat through an episode.
It's Wednesday afternoon and I've just made a date with my television for tomorrow night at 10:00pm because I want to confirm for myself that I cannot sit through an episode of that damned show anymore.
Not since the birth of my daughter.
2:20pm. The music on NetRadio has shifted to an unidentifiable dirge. Lunch is over. Back to work.
Thursday, August 30, 2001, 6:30am
Our Welsh Corgi politely woke me a few minutes ago needing to be let out. I performed my early morning ritual of stumbling blindly around the house while the coffee brewed, trying not to wake the rest of my family. If I'm lucky, the girls will sleep for another 30 minutes. No music yet this morning. That blessed, blessed first cup of coffee creeps the world into focus. Dexter, the dog, sleeps behind my chair.
E.R. starts in fifteen and one-half hours. When I shared my intention of watching the show with Kathi, my wife, her unequivocal reply came instantly, "you're on your own."
I dread this.
We tell kids "you are what you eat," and as a culture we also believe that you are what you read, watch, and listen to. With food, the transmutation holds few mysteries. Eating a lot of doughnuts makes you fat. Salads don't. But how a man metabolizes a Steven Segal movie in such a way that he buys a cheap, Korean semi-automatic weapon, strolls into 7-11, and methodically shoots every person there until they die is less obvious. Do we call this transmutation or transubstantiation? Marilyn Manson got fingered for Columbine, but those boys didn't listen to his music. Most times, clear vectors refuse to point from violent images to acts of violence. Instead, it's more of a tesseract. Artists — and although I don't appreciate his oeuvre Manson is one — pump violence into the mass consciousness and extend the realm of the thinkable in a strangely homologous way to how European voyagers filled in their maps by bumping into America, bringing with them viruses and guns that killed the natives.
In tonight's performance, the roles of the indigenous people will be played by you and me.
Our short attention span culture has hundreds of Television, Radio, print, and Internet channels all shouting, waving, teasing, flashing, cooing, vomiting for our attention 24/7/365, and many artists capture our gaze by spelling out the unthinkable in unremitting, photographic detail. For me, the great wall of cognition between the thinkable and the unthinkable abruptly moved about six months ago.
Without warning, my personal distaste for a television show origami-folded in on itself and assumed a surprisingly political shape. Abstract theoretical questions about the nature of sign systems and representations of power became concrete and pragmatic. E.R. isn't just a show I dislike. E.R. is a bad show, politically, morally, aesthetically. The worst on television.
How did this happen? I have a six-month old daughter named Helena. E.R. is the dead baby hour. Do the math. This ain't calculus, folks.
7:15am. I hear stirring. Time to share the coffee with Kathi.
Thursday, September 6, 2001, 6:30am
It's been a week since I wrote the last? How is that possible?
I missed my date with E.R. To be honest, I didn't mind, I'd been dreading it so, but I missed it. Life gets in the way of television. In the case of the last few days, obstacles ranging from the merely inconvenient to those that loomed like the darkest creatures of Grimm's colluded to keep me from watching the episode (I taped it) and then sitting down to write about the experience. And it wasn't simply Baby Standard Time (in which you plan your day and learn to count on having between one-half and four hours randomly snatched from you, snatched by the most cute and delightful creature in the solar system, but snatched nonetheless). Entropy and Exhaustion tag-teamed-wrestled us to the mat and assumed the forms of exploding plumbing, a swarm of angry bees, and food poisoning. Happy Labor Day.
I have about 15 more minutes to write, and in that time I want to make three points, one long and two short.
One. Taping E.R. was necessary but regrettable. Necessary because my daughter needed a bath, dirty dishes waited in the sink, and we just ran out of time. But regrettable? Even if I'd found the time to watch that taped episode, it wouldn't have be the same as watching it live. The makers of VCRs, DVD players, and TiVo-ish machines ignore the simple reality that television is better live than recorded. Even though the vast bulk of television is now taped (even Saturday Night Live if you don't live on the Least Coast), when you watch it live then you know that somewhere other people are watching it simultaneously. If you pause the experience with your TiVo, you fall from synchrony with the rest of the audience, exiting the moment without a return pass.
Bakhtin called this phenomenon sobytiinost' or eventness. Reading a book is uneventful (although the book might describe events) because you control the experience utterly and can stop reading anytime. Watching a television show on tape drains sobytiinost' away. Eventness only happens in the absence of a pause button. Constrained by the flow of time, your awareness skitters across associations and emotions, ideas jump into focus and then mist dreamily away. The story and the performance of the story dance in your consciousness. Then the commercial hits, the cognitive dance stops, but the music continues in your mind. Eventness requires momentum. It's hard to dance if you keep stopping the music.
Two. I first discovered my inability to sit through the dead baby hour on July 19th, 2001, when I found myself watching an E.R. episode entitled "Sand and Water." (A rerun of the second episode of the 2000/2001 season.)
Three. Another episode plays tonight.
7:07am. Time's up.
Saturday, September 08, 2001, 5:00pm
Kathi and the baby are out with my mother. The house is mine. No music. A bowl of champagne grapes on my desk. With luck, the phones won't ring.
I missed my second date with E.R. Oops. All the same reasons applied. Two episodes now lurk in the V.C.R. Will I watch the tape, sham-replicating the event by putting the remote control down and subjecting myself to the commercials without interruption? Or will I just screw it and hit the damned pause button when the phone rings?
"Sand and Water." In July, Kathi and the baby visited her parents in Oregon. We drove from Los Angeles for three days to reach Portland, whereupon I flew back down here to go to work. It was just me and Dexter for two painfully lonely weeks. My long-abandoned bachelor rhythms reasserted themselves instantaneously. Instead of going to bed at 11 (or collapsing next to Kathi whenever the baby fell asleep), I explored the hinterland of the living room, spend-thriftily wasted hours online (mind you, I work for an Internet company: my job is to be online), and fell asleep in front of the television nightly.
Thursday the 19th was typical. By the time I finished dinner and did my chores the clock read 9:45pm. I surfed through 500 channels in fifteen minutes, and landed on E.R.
Why not, I thought. It's been years.
The show opened painlessly enough: Anthony Edwards and his girlfriend (the British one, whatever her name is) bickered about a parking ticket she got. Then Noah Wyle was at an AA meeting. Fair enough, I thought, but when did he become a drunk? Unmemorable things happened, and then a pregnant woman staggered in, 22 weeks along and having contractions. Nurses clucked and dithered. She was going into labor and screaming, "make it stop, make it stop!"
I stabbed the channel button. The screen lurched to the 10 o'clock news, showing a happy pair of newlyweds. Cut to the anchor wearing a sad face (the teleprompter told him to, I presume). I screamed, out loud, alone, in my house (how often do you do that?). I turned off the TV. The newlyweds were dead. Or missing. Dead, probably. Dead, certainly. Why else would the news bother with them? Dead.
22 weeks? That's early — that's too early — that's —
I hurriedly turned the TV back on, muted it, and jumped channels — squinting through the corner of my eye — until I landed on something safe. I don't remember what: cartoons, Star Trek, The Three Stooges, Nascar, the Russian Roulette scene from The Deer Hunter. I don't know. It just wasn't E.R.
I tranquilized myself with other TV for a while. Got bored, and started surfing again. Stupidly, I landed back on NBC, back on E.R. A man walked to the threshold of a room in the hospital and said to Maura Tierney, "is it dead yet?"
No, no, no, no, no.
The camera cut to a plastic and rubber thing that looked like a baby. A terribly little little baby with translucent skin and clearly no hope of survival and really not all that much smaller than my daughter when she finally popped wide-eyed and curious out of my wife and I'm having trouble writing this right now even though it happened in July.
I don't remember anything else from that night.
Days later I thought more about it. My mind could no more metabolize the images I saw onscreen than my body could digest shards of glass. When I turned the channel I was stepping back from a cognitive precipice with the same relief as when you finally step back from a real cliff's edge and are able to stop thinking, "what if I fall? What if I jump? What would it be like? The air rushing past. The impact. What if I fall? What if I jump?" ad infinitum. The sublime abyss beckons, taking your mind into it, but not your body, most of the time, if you're lucky.
More plainly put, I was watching the unwatchable, and had to stop myself before I thought the unthinkable. Even now, I can only skirt the issue: I didn't want to imagine my little girl as that baby. I can write those words, but as I do my scalp tingles and I become more aware of my breathing and my shins pressing into the pad of the kneeling chair. A small cramp echoes in my stomach. Blood pumps — not rushing, just pumping — in my ears.
Had I watched that episode straight through, imagining that story as a ghastly sideshadow to my own happy narrative (an unproblematic birth, a healthy wife-mommy, a healthy baby girl, a relieved husband-daddy) 11:00pm would have found me bereft: solitary confinement in the house, fetal position on the couch, weeping at a world without comfort. Perhaps I would have called my wife, and said, "Check the baby. Make sure she's breathing." Perhaps I would have counted ceiling cracks the night through, then skipped work and caught the first plane to Oregon the next morning. I don't know. The consequences of watching it seemed whirl-a-gig and infinite. I backed away from that cliff.
There's no ratings system for this. No sign that flashes across the screen before an episode of E.R. reading, "Content May Be Unsuitable For Young Parents."
Two years ago, before we thought about becoming parents, I could have watched "Sand and Water." I wouldn't have liked it, but I could have sat through it. Not now.
When I say that E.R. is the worst show on television, it isn't just because the show is famous for portraying the deaths of babies. I personally can't watch the show for that reason (at least I think I can't — we'll see when I finally sit down and hit the play button on the V.C.R.), but that's not the basis for my judgment. Rather, E.R. is the worst show on television because it's a sorry excuse for drama, and its unwatchable dead-babyness merely epitomizes why.
When we say E.R. is "dramatic" we mean it in the loosest sense of the word, the sense of spectacle. Hurricanes and roller coasters and sexy outfits and bullfights are each dramatic in this sense, but not in the sense of drama as a kind of theater. Every undergrad theater major knows that the core of drama is conflict between people. But in E.R., aside from inconsequential running plots in which characters argue about parking tickets and go to AA meetings, the conflict is between the doctors and random acts that take place outside the emergency room. That's not drama. It's a car crash on the side of the freeway that you can't stop looking at as you crawl past at 10 M.P.H.
6:21pm. Kathi and the baby are home. I'm happy. Time to stop.
Sunday, September 09, 2001, 5:35pm
My parents have taken the baby for a ride to the mall. Kathi is out with her
friend Kim at a yoga class. Everybody left half an hour ago. "Ha!" I
thought. "The house is mine! Time to sit down in front of E.R. and
see what happens."
I'd just turned on the TV when an earthquake hit. No kidding. Nothing's broken. A little bitty one: 4.2 on the Richter. I reach out to people on their cells. Nobody's dead. Everybody's fine. I calm Dexter down.
Ironically, I'm now so frustrated by contingency's thrusting itself between me and an experience that I'm bound to hate (that is, watching this show) that I'm positively eager to embrace the experience.
I'm heading to the TV.
6:42pm. It took 10 days longer than planned (Baby Standard Time strikes again and again), but I did it. I reached the final credits on the episode from August 30th, entitled "Fear of Commitment." I survived. There was only one dead baby — randomly thrust into the story, near as I can tell, to meet a macabre quota. My parents called during a commercial: they're bringing my daughter back soon. I didn't stop the tape once, ignoring the omnipotence of the remote control (can God make a show so compelling that even he can't hit the pause button?).
My parents are back with my daughter. More later.
Monday, September 10, 2001, 6:30am
The girls sleep. Dexter hovers outside the baby's room, big ears at high noon, listening. I'm on my second cup of coffee. Time to wrap up.
16 minutes into "Fear of Commitment" the episode seemed blessedly dead-babyless. An old guy had a heart attack and Eric LaSalle happened to be there to help, along, oddly, with Tom Poston and Tom Bosley who showed up for unclear reasons. En route to the hospital, the ambulance hit a motorcycle. Sally Field was Maura Tierney's mother, and Sally was crazy. She was really, really crazy. So crazy that Maura had her committed. And Sally contested it.
Sally Field and Maura Tierney, two terrific actresses, were compelling. Near as I could tell (and from what I remember from the trades last fall), Sally guest-starred for a multi-episode arc and it was drama plain and simple: two characters were locked in conflict, groping towards resolution. It had nothing to do with the emergency room at a county hospital in Chicago. This plot could have been translocated to Family Law, NYPD Blue, or any number of other shows with cursory revisions.
Then, the dead-baby prescription was filled by Nonni, an early-twenties woman who started bleeding 9 weeks into a pregnancy. It turned out that Nonni's creepy boyfriend Victor had slipped miscarriage-inducing herbal extracts into her tea because he wasn't ready to be a father. The drugs caused Nonni to bleed a lot, requiring a D&C. Victor protested to Noah Wyle that he didn't want to hurt anybody. "No," Wyle replied. "You just wanted to kill a baby." Later, the police arrested Victor for homicide.
I winced, but Nonni was a C or D plot, not the focus of the whole episode. And losing a pregnancy at nine weeks is awful, but no since no translucent animatronic dying babies visibly appeared on camera this plot did not cause me to plunge my face into the couch and claw madly at the off button.
Still, "You just wanted to kill a baby" is a sentence that I can type but that I have trouble contemplating for more than a few seconds. Once again, I've strolled up to the great wall of cognition between the thinkable and the unthinkable. For me, thinking about my baby, that sentence conjures a set of utterly devastating consequences that are insufficiently dramatic (in the spectacle sense) for the show to bother portraying.
And that's the problem with E.R. The dramatic (in the theatrical sense) aspects of the show are the ordinarily humdrum interactions between the doctors in a trauma ward. The real drama — how the patients stagger back into life after they leave the hospital — always hides safely off-screen. Trauma is not drama. The emergency room is an urgently adrenalized place where everybody fights to find patchwork solutions to problems, leaving the long-term consequences for the patients to another day. With dead babies, those consequences are precisely why E.R. lands on the unthinkable side of the my great wall.
Close friends of ours lived that nightmare and lost a newborn son. How it happened was dramatic in the E.R./spectacle sense. The consequences that followed weren't dramatic. They were worse. E.R. has no interest in the agonizingly prosaic challenges that young parents face when their child dies. After you leave the hospital, how do you pick up the pieces when there's no puzzle to assemble? What do you do about the nursery? Do you turn it back into a spare bedroom or home office? Or do you leave it — gaily decorated in bright happy colors — as a shrine to who was lost and a constant lancing reminder? Unthinkable.
When Kathi was still pregnant, people (friends, family, strangers in line at the grocery store) constantly told me that being a father would change my life. Each time I had the same thought, "duh." Of course it would change my life. Every new moment changes my life in some way. Eating a sandwich changes my life. What they meant and did not, could not, convey is that becoming a parent not only adds a new, small, cute, diaper-wearing variable into your life but also redraws the map of your past. All the old land masses are there, the old history and dynamics, but you relate to them and they relate to each other in surprising new ways. In my case, one of the most minor surprises was discovering that I can no longer sit through E.R.
7:30am. Dexter snuck in while I was writing and sleeps curled up next to my desk. The girls still sleep. Safe. Time to get ready for work.
Another episode of E.R. waits on that tape. I'm going to erase it.
Bradley Berens is a writer, editor, and family man in Los Angeles.