Saturday, May 12, 2012

Setting the Record Straight About a Few Things

Comment on a recent article about the show at A.V. Club, which will likely stay in Google's top ten results for "St. Elsewhere" for a while.

In preparing this blog, I came across a recent article about St. Elsewhere, part of a series of articles on A.V. Club where they profile shows that reached the 100-episode mark, which used to be the number after which episodes of a currently-airing show could be sold into syndication. St. Elsewhere celebrated its 100th episode by including a line about a patient named Cindy Kayshun who was still going strong after a hundred episodes of angina.

I take issue with a few things in this article. First of all, the author goes on about how St. Elsewhere stayed on the air because of an innovative strategy of citing demographics to sell the show to advertisers, and it was kept around because of its appeal to the 18-to-49 demographic. Robert Thompson's book, Television's Second Golden Age, tells the story a bit differently. Sure, its audience was skewed towards the 18-to-49's, but what kept it on the air, far from being simply a "vanity" project that "made the network look good", was that the show was actually NBC's fourth-most profitable series by the end of its run. By season six, it had started to win its time slot, climbing to a personal-best #49 in the annual Nielsen rankings. NBC was ready to green-light it for the 1988-89 season, but MTM Productions decided to call it day, as rising production costs and poor syndication sales meant that it would cost them too much to continue making it. Ironic given that they had wrap up most preceding seasons with episodes that could have doubled as series finales because they were perennially on the network's chopping block.

According to Thompson, what made the show profitable for the network was that the audience it delivered was not just young, but affluent and sophisticated, and thus could attract sponsors who sold luxury goods who otherwise wouldn't have advertised on network television, like Mercedes (I think it was Mercedes; I don't feel like flipping through that book now). Like most television programming choices, the numbers that mattered were simple dollars and cents. Guess those yuppies were useful for something after all!

The other issue I have with this article is the author's issue with the episode where former nurse Shirley Daniels returned to the hospital from prison, where she had been serving her sentence for killing doctor-turned-rapist Peter White. Here, he would have benefited from actually going back and watching the episodes again. I must admit that my memory of the show was quite fuzzy after--oh wow--fourteen years, and I find myself noticing things I hadn't picked up on before. Quote:
He’s acquitted at his trial, but one of the hospital’s nurses decides to avenge one of her friends and kills the doctor. She’s charged with the murder, and the others in the hospital close ranks against her when she comes in for treatment she can’t receive at the prison’s infirmary. It’s a little infuriating. The show insisted that its cult find its characters basically likable and empathetic, then turned on one of its own, essentially saying, “Sure, he was a rapist, but you’re the real awful person.”
To be fair, I haven't yet rewatched the episode where Shirley comes back to see if there's more to it, but go back and watch season 3 again, and you'll see why they likely took issue with her. When the cops are closing in, she flees to the roof of the hospital where she threatens to kill herself, and then holds a gun on nice guy Dr. Jack Morrison. She manages to come back to work again while awaiting trial, but she's got a screw loose, and tells Jack that she should have splattered him all over the roof. Then Peter's widow Myra, a nice woman whom they all liked who just happened to marry the wrong guy, arrives at the hospital to deliver the baby with whom she was pregnant when Peter was killed. The baby shower they throw for her gets buzzkilled by an anonymous gift, later discovered to be from Shirley, of baby-sized ski masks, a nod to the ski mask Peter wore when committing the rapes. (Shirley thoughtfully knitted one in pink and one in blue, as she didn't know if Myra was expecting a boy or a girl.) Finally, when confronted by a difficult patient in the E.R., she pulls a gun on him, which she then turns on Jack (again) and this time, she pulls the trigger. A flag with the word "BANG!" comes out the end, and she says coldly, "Can't anyone around here take a joke?" before walking out the door for good.

This was a pretty thorny situation. They all liked Jack, but Jack was best friends with Peter, defending him right up until his death. I can't really blame Shirley for her bitterness towards Jack for befriending Peter, but neither am I surprised that the staff weren't jubilant to see her back in the hospital considering what she was like before she was carted off to jail. She was pretty scary. I remember watching the episode where she returns from prison when I was in high school, watching them out of order in syndication when I had only seen seasons four through six, and I also didn't understand why they sent her the piece of needlework that read "we hate you". But it makes sense now.

Furthermore, I doubt the show expected its audience to find all of the characters basically likable and empathetic, especially Peter. He was unlikable right from the start--a bad doctor, irresponsible, frequently taking advantage of Jack, abusing prescription drugs, philandering, and a terrible husband when he was at home. Sure, he felt like he got screwed when he got his license to prescribe drugs taken away, and sure, he covered for Shirley, but it wasn't like he was innocent of giving prescription drugs to the undercover cop because he felt sorry for her. (When you're a doctor, you have to be able to stay on top of your emotions when patients lay guilt trips on you.) By the time of his death, everybody hated Peter because they knew what he'd done, and even Jack, whose naive belief in the goodness in people eventually comes back to bite him in the ass (oh, if only it was just a bite!), didn't think Peter had any business coming back to the hospital where he wasn't wanted.

Furthermore, Mark Craig is often simply detestable, and the times where you feel for him are few and far between. That he remains a favourite character for many is a credit to actor William Daniels. I kind of feel bad for Terence Knox, who played Peter. He was so despicable in that role that it's hard to see him as anything else. I can't believe that was him starring on Tour of Duty. And Lucy Papandreo, as of the beginning of season five, has only just shown her first signs of being anything other than a horrid bitch. Nothing likable there at this point.

We're all entitled to our opinions, but I find the author's analysis here to be haphazard, probably the result of a fuzzy memory. I also have to admit that I am generally not a fan of the A.V. Club, or the hipster culture to which it's directed, especially their tendency to take themselves, their tastes, and their opinions very, very seriously, and I do take pleasure in calling them wrong about something. In this case, I've either just read a book he hasn't, or, given that he's a TV critic, I wouldn't be surprised if he actually has read it but doesn't have the freak-show memory I do. But of course, I'm just tossing out a wild, unfounded guess to discredit the object of my criticism further.

Anyway, despite my distaste for the A.V. Club's usual snobby-nerd-hipster attitude, I still read their articles now and then, and often enjoy them. It's like how I used to watch Siskel and Ebert; I didn't always agree with them, but I got to know them well enough to be able to figure out whether I'd like a movie based on the combination of their reactions. Similarly, I won't dismiss a show because it didn't do what the TV Club reviewer wanted it to do, but I'll get a pretty good idea of what the show's about.

Part of my aim with this blog is to put in my two cents about St. Elsewhere, which was adored by critics in its day, but has virtually no significance to anyone born after 1977, it would seem. Before the TV landscape shifted in the mid-to-late nineties, TV Guide once called it the #1 TV show of all time (don't know exactly when that was; it says that in the Thompson book). Critical opinion in television seems to shift with each passing generation, and what gets considered "good" changes in light of the shows that came more recently. It's simply the nature of generations raised in an electronic media culture to have a present-minded orientation to the world, and it's simply my own experience growing up around older siblings and older parents to have an experience of culture that's largely out of step with that of people my own age.

Hence -- I've created the St. Elsewhere Experience! Because thanks to free blogging platforms, anyone can spout off.


  1. Out of all the characters, who would you say fares as the most likable and empathetic? Morrison and Westphall? Were there any characters that didn't have unlikable qualities to them?

  2. Another great question! Okay, let's see...

    Westphall, yes.
    Morrison, yes, except for when he goes all pro-life, and I find him less than sympathetic when he defends Peter, or when he spars with Phil over Vietnam, or when he loses it in the paintball episode, or during his "Dr. Adam Logan" period.

    My personal list of likeable characters: At the top: Jackie Wade. Then: Donald Westphall, Ellen Craig, Luther Hawkins, Vijay Kochar, Michael Ridley.

    I enjoy most of the other characters, but I don't feel as much of an affinity for them like I do for the ones I've listed.

    1. Oversight - in retrospect, I must amend... At the top: Jackie Wade and Daniel Auschlander!

  3. Jackie Wade really was very likeable. I adored her character, and I wish Sagan Lewis had done more TV/films (loved her on Homicide, too). Luther, also, was lovable.

    Shirley was one of my favorite characters in the beginning, and I was sad to see how far off course she veered. Also, exactly what you said about William Daniels and his portrayal of Mark Craig is how I feel about Terence Knox and his portrayal of Peter. The fact that a drug addicted rapist could get one iota of sympathy out of me says a lot. It's still a big leap for me how he escalated to rape, especially since the first victim was a random woman visiting someone at the hospital, not someone who he felt had done him wrong like Cathy or Wendy.

    1. It was my recollection that at the same time Peter was being killed by Shirley, an undercover policewoman was attacked in St Eligius and was captured and charged with attempted rape. So was Peter actually guilty?!

    2. Yes--after Shirley kills Peter, the undercover cop (posing as a really bad orderly) busts a ski-masked rapist, and Shirley watches them cart the assailant away.

      Peter clearly did the first round, in season two. I believe it's implied that the season three rapes, when they start up again, were committed by this copycat assailant. Right before Shirley kills Peter, she asks him why he raped Cathy again, and he claims he didn't, and it looks like he was telling the truth.

      So yes, he was guilty, as was the other guy.

    3. If memory serves, the "copycat" rapist looked EXACTLY like Peter. Not merely similar - EXACTLY like him. And in reference to the above poster: "Peter *clearly* did the first round ...", well I don't see it that way. What point would there have been to have an identical twin rapist, if not to cast doubt that Peter was the original rapist?

      I believe it was the look-alike all along.

    4. See for yourself... Watch the whole thing here:

    5. Thanks, I was already skimming through the youtube videos. Do you know which episode the 'copycat' rapist is unmasked in?

    6. Part 15; the guy does look a lot like Peter! It's at the end of Part 2 where Cathy pulls off the ski mask to reveal Peter. That's why I think it's clear that he at least attacked her. And Wendy, where he wasn't even wearing a mask.

    7. Thanks for the info! St. E. is still one of my all-time favorite shows. I think I'm going to watch the whole story arc after I check out that specific one. Thanks for posting the videos too!

    8. Thank you for commenting and enjoying the videos! There will be fresh content coming in the New Year.

  4. Was the show ever syndicated? I loved it when it was on and have been unable to find the show on DVD. Anyone who can point me there?