Remember when everyone watched ER? Like, everyone? We're talking back in 1995, 1996. The days of Doug Ross and Mark Greene, Carol Hathaway, Peter Benton, and our favorite, Jeanie Boulet — the saintly, HIV-positive physician's assistant played by Gloria Reuben. Back then, when ER was on, everything shut down and everyone sat down to watch — even, say, snooty drama majors who disdained pop culture any more lowbrow than Caryl Churchill.
Well, a little taste of that glorious TV past returned as Jeanie Boulet came back to County General last night. None of the doctors had any idea who she was, which seemed only fair as we — tuning in for the first time in about nine years — had no idea who any of the doctors were. (Well, we knew the actors, including 8 Mile's Mekhi Phifer, Bend It Like Beckham's Parminder Nagra, and Freaks and Geeks' Linda Cardellini. But we didn't know any of the characters.) The show, based on last night's episode, seems on its last legs; the actors are all game, but the writing and pacing — once so sharp and revolutionary for TV — seem slow-witted and blunt, with broad sitcom-y slapstick piled atop moments so soapy that even the three-hankie sobfest that was mid-nineties ER wouldn't have touched them with Kerry Weaver's crutch. ("I was raped!" sobs a soldier home from Iraq, when her husband demands to know how she got pregnant.)
And then into all this walked Jeanie Boulet. Oh, poor, poor Jeanie Boulet.
No one suffers like Jeanie Boulet, and last night's episode was a welcome throwback to the days when it seemed like every episode forced Jeanie to process some piece of world-shattering news. There's always been great pleasure in Reuben's beautiful, open face in moments like that; she played those scenes to the hilt, creating in us a great sympathy for her character that's eclipsed how we've felt about any subsequent TV character other than maybe Buffy. We couldn't stand to watch her suffer so, but we couldn't stop watching her suffer, and we died a little with every hurt the producers hit her with. (Such was our residual affection for Jeanie Boulet that when we watched Reuben in the Public's production of Stuff Happens, we felt desperately sorry for her character even though she was playing Condoleezza Rice.)
Last night offered a classic Jeanie Boulet moment, as filtered through the show's new blunt-instrument writers. Told by a doctor that her adopted son, Carlos, has a specific kind of brain tumor, Jeanie looked down, then looked up, her wide eyes brimming with tears, her jaw set. "My son has AIDS," she said, and it was like it was 1995 all over again.
As hard as some of ER was to watch last night, the episode offered a series of little gifts to former fans. Reggie Moore, the grounded, serious cop who came into Jeanie's life ten years ago, made another appearance. We got the sad news that Al, Jeanie's first husband, had finally died of the virus he gave to Jeanie all those years before. But that was leavened with the news that Doug and Carol are happy together in Seattle, their twin girls now in third grade. As Jeanie and her old friend Nurse Adams walked the hall together, Adams suggested she ought to get everyone together for dinner some night. "Do that," Jeanie answered. "We'll get together, like the good old days." To which we can only say, yes, please, NBC.