vulture lists

The 27 Best ER Episodes to Watch If You’ve Never Seen It

Photo: Getty Images/Getty Images

What’s that sound you hear? That distant sound of cheers and huzzahs? That chorus of joyous voices shouting in celebration? Is it … can it be? Is ER finally available on a streaming platform? I am here, like a TV-recommendation annunciation angel, to say unto you: Yes! All of ER — all approximately 250 hours — is now streaming on Hulu.

For any newbies out there, be aware that ER is not a small TV project. The granddaddy of all medical dramas ran from 1994 to 2009, for 15 old-school, network-length seasons on NBC. The list below highlights the specific episodes absolutely worth seeing, but if you want to start from the beginning, you should watch all of season one. If you watch that and want more, the next easy off-ramp is the end of season three, after which a few of the main players start to disappear. If you’re still on board after that, it’s a great show all the way up through season five, and there are even highlights beyond then as well, but those bright spots get a little farther apart. If you make it all the way to season seven, you should probably admit you’re in deep and commit for the long haul. Just know that it’s a mess after season nine.

The Beginning

24 Hours” (Season 1, Episode 1)
It’s worth watching the entire first season, but if you’re going to pick and choose from the highlights, you should start with the double-length pilot that kicks everything off. That’s especially true if ER is new to you, but even if you’ve seen the show before, revisiting the first episode is absolutely worth it. So much of what makes it great is already in place, and you should pay special attention to the set design and cinematography that makes ER feel very different from current medical dramas. (So crowded! So messy! So much movement and energy!)

Going Home” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Nurse Carol Hathaway’s drug overdose is one of the key events that kicks off the series, and “Going Home” deals with the aftermath when Carol returns to work. The tone of her return and the way her colleagues treat her is a nicely representative sample of how ER treats its characters and the way they interact with each other. These are lived-in, thoughtful, comfortable relationships, and they feel true to life in a way that’s both loving and direct. Bonus: This is a key episode for the biggest ship of the series, the ongoing saga of Carol and Doug. Extra bonus: George Clooney’s real-life aunt, the inimitable Rosemary, is a guest — and she sings!

Blizzard” (Season 1, Episode 10)
I have a thing for shows that use weather well, and it stems from my early fandom of ER, which is a king of this trope. This is the first and one of the best of ER’s weather-related crises, and you can see how episodes like this get passed down into the mass casualty events of a show like Grey’s Anatomy. “Blizzard” is distinctly ER, from its deftly balanced tone changes, to the way it crams tiny bits of character development into every possible shot, to the impulse toward meaning in small-scale heroics.

Love’s Labor Lost” (Season 1, Episode 19)
This is the kind of episode that gets included on “best episodes of all time” lists, but “Love’s Labor Lost” is not one to start if you want a relaxing hour of TV. (Consider skipping it entirely if you or a loved one is pregnant or has recently given birth.) ER is usually a fast-paced series, and this episode doesn’t feel super slow, but the pace is different from the norm. The drama feels grindingly inevitable, in a way that builds gradually until you’re completely crushed. It also features a great performance by a young and increasingly frantic Bradley Whitford.

Motherhood” (Season 1, Episode 24)
Did you know Quentin Tarantino directed an episode of ER? If you didn’t, and you were just barreling through season one (I feel you), you may well have picked up on the slightly different rhythms of this episode anyhow. The biggest clues? There’s a fabulously mannered shot of Carol and Susan wearing sunglasses and walking down a hallway and, yes, there’s also a shot of their bare feet.

The Golden Years

Hell and High Water” (Season 2, Episode 7)
Famously, this is the episode that made George Clooney a movie star. It’s one of a classic ER genre, where one or more doctors gets involved in a medical crisis outside the hospital. Here, Doug Ross is trying to rescue a young boy trapped in a flooded storm drain. Watch for one shot in particular, as a rain-drenched Clooney is bathed in the glow of an emergency rescue light while holding the boy. He’s basically staring up at his nascent film career.

The Healers” (Season 2, Episode 16)
In the later years, ER’s interpersonal drama would get more heightened and familiar characters kicked the bucket much more often. In the first several seasons, though, episodes like “The Healers” retain all of their punch thanks to how rarely the show leans on that crutch, and how thoughtfully it tackles emergency personnel dealing with loss.

John Carter, M.D.” (Season 2, Episode 22)
ER gives you lots of characters to love and cherish, but it sets up Dr. Carter as your guide from the beginning; after all, the pilot is his first day. This episode is a milestone for both Carter and for the direction of the show, which will expand to include more surgery stories as he chooses his specialty.

Fear of Flying” (Season 3, Episode 6)
“Fear of Flying” is another crisis-medicine-in-the-field episode, and it’s one of the better ones. But it’s worth picking out from the bunch for its portrait of Susan Lewis, a character who often gets stuck in the unenviable position of representing work-life balance on a show that glorifies work. She would leave County General Hospital shortly after this episode, but the seeds of her departure start here.

Night Shift” (Season 3, Episode 11)
“Night Shift” builds slowly and pulls on a few of the ongoing character threads from the early seasons, all of which relate to the tensions between employees and their supervisors. The episode is great at showing that idea in a bunch of messy iterations, including Carter’s romantic relationship with a superior and Greene’s growing disregard for the rules. Bonus: It features a very young Kirsten Dunst in one of her recurring appearances as a young homeless girl who becomes friends with Doug Ross.

Calling Dr. Hathaway” (Season 3, Episode 19)
This is a smaller story episode — ER is so great at funny little side plots, and this episode has a really good one — but the center of it is Carol Hathaway trying to decide whether to try to leap out of nursing and into medical school. ER complicates the nurse/doctor divide in a way few medical dramas do, and Hathaway’s career arc is a nicely untidy way to tell that story.

Exodus” (Season 4, Episode 15)
One of the delights of watching a newbie character from the very beginning is the moment that character gets to step up in an authority position.Well, this is that episode for Carter. The premise is pretty melodramatic — chemical spill, contaminated hospital, you get the idea — but “Exodus” really earns its heightened circumstances.

The Storm, Parts 1 and 2” (Season 5, Episodes 14 and 15)
This is a key two-part episode for the Carol and Doug of it all, and for the endgame of Dr. Doug Ross. But it also combines a few of my favorite ER tropes: bad weather and a doctor actually facing serious repercussions for refusing to follow a policy he doesn’t like.

The Middling Middle

Be Still My Heart” / “All in the Family” (Season 6, Episodes 13 and 14)
Things go very, very wrong at a Valentine’s Day party, which leads to the most intense cliff-hanger of the series. (It would make my list of best TV cliff-hangers ever.) Trust me when I say you cannot imagine the agony of waiting a week between these episodes when they originally aired almost 20 years ago. But they’re so well made that even now, you’ll get quite the agonizing wallop when you watch them in a marathon streaming session.

Rescue Me” (Season 7, Episode 7)
ER included stories about its characters’ home lives from the beginning, but toward the middle of the show’s run, the balance tips further toward life stuff and farther from work stuff. The upshot is that those life stories involve great guest stars: “Rescue Me” is one Sally Fields’s many appearances as Abby Lockhart’s mother. But it’s also one of the episodes that gives us a main character, someone we’ve known from the beginning, slowly realizing she may not be straight. Plus, there’s a terrible rainstorm.

Never Say Never” (Season 8, Episode 4)
Five seasons after Susan Lewis rolls out of the series on a train from Union Station, another train pulls in and she walks back onto the show. It’s played for sentiment, of course, but ER also takes full advantage of its long history, exploring how much has changed in her absence and what it’s like for these characters with eight full years of fictional life.

Secrets and Lies” (Season 8, Episode 16)
The setup here already shows its age — a dominatrix’s bag of sex toys leads to a bunch of employees stuck in a sexual-harassment seminar, and it’s mostly treated for laughs — but the bottle episode it gives us, with a big handful of the main cast all sitting in an empty classroom, is really great. (They also have a little discussion about the TV shows they all watch, which is one of my favorite moments of the show’s later years).

The Letter” / “On the Beach” (Season 8, Episodes 20 and 21)
Some of ER’s departures from the hospital stories seem like they drag on too long, and that was definitely a criticism of these episodes, which represent the end of a long illness for one of the show’s most beloved characters. I understand that criticism, but I cried like a child when I watched these episodes many years ago, and I cried again when I watched them recently. Are they schmaltzy? Yes. Do they work? Absolutely.

Kisangani” (Season 9, Episode 22)
In the last several seasons, ER tries to expand its scope beyond the hospital, mostly to the show’s detriment. (Be a hospital show, ER!) Several employees take off to do aid work in Africa, and the show never really gets a grip on how to tell those stories, how they relate to the rest of the show, or how to construct that dynamic so it doesn’t come off as “American doctors save third-world victims.” If you want to get a flavor for this era, though, “Kisangani” is the one to watch.

Freefall” (Season 10, Episode 8)
Watch this episode for one reason and one reason alone: A main character loses an arm because it gets chopped off by a helicopter.

The Later Years

Ruby Redux” (Season 11, Episode 19)
It’s unfortunate when a show runs out of gas, but longevity and bulk can also present storytelling opportunities that are hard to replicate in shorter-run series. In “Ruby Redux,” a patient returns from a case that Carter messed up back in the earliest days of the show. It’s great for people who’ve watched from the start, but even without that memory, ER figures out how to use that history as a yardstick for Carter’s growth.

Twenty-One Guns” (Season 12, Episode 22)
The season 12 finale is a good representative of what ER was in its closing seasons: It’s a normal day until all of a sudden there are gunmen inside the hospital and there’s a marriage proposal and someone’s getting fired and it’s just all catastrophe all at once. But there are still excellent character beats, especially for Maura Tierney’s Abby and Parminder Nagra’s Neela.

The War Comes Home” (Season 14, Episode 1)
These final seasons don’t hold up to the show’s early high points, but I could not in good conscience fail to note that in the end years, the chief of emergency medicine is played by Stanley Tucci. This episode is Tucci’s first day on the job.

And in the End…” (Season 15, Episode 22)
Even if you watch a bunch of the early seasons and skip most of the rest, it’s worth watching the glorious farewell nostalgia-fest of the finale. Basically everyone who didn’t die comes back and hugs each other. Okay, not really, but ER figures out what the medical-drama version of that reunion would be, and it’s very satisfying.

The 27 ER Episodes to Stream on Hulu If You’ve Never Watched