Sunday, June 3, 2012

The St. Elsewhere Time Frame

An unusual way to pass the time in a continuing television drama - one fictional year passes for every two in real life.

Some of season one's first-year residents: Ehrlich,
Chandler, White, Armstrong & Fiscus.
As St. Elsewhere begins, we meet a crop of first-year resident doctors--Dr. Victor Ehrlich, Dr. Wayne Fiscus, Dr. Jack Morrison, Dr. Philip Chandler, Dr. Peter White, Dr. Wendy Armstrong, Dr. Cathy Martin, plus a few others, including Dr. Jacqueline Wade and Dr. Steven Kiley, both of whom end up sticking around for the whole series.

Season two ends with the residents dealing with the pressure of taking their first-year exams, with the worst performers being dropped from the second-year residency program. This ends up including Jack Morrison, who scores low but returns because Wendy's spot opens up, and Peter White, who is dropped for very, very good reasons, sues to get his place back, but doesn't last long (karma's a bitch, ain't it).

So each television season covers half a year in the life of the residents. Season three starts with another crop of first-year residents, of which Dr. Elliott Axelrod is the only major cast addition, and season five starts with the next wave of first-year residents, with Dr. Seth Griffin and Dr. Carol Novino as the primaries, and new resident Dr. Susan Birch quickly getting the axe due in large part to Griffin's douchebaggery.

Towards the end of the series finale (at the end of season six), we briefly meet yet another first resident, Dr. Brandon Falsey (John Short), named after creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey, who left the show after season one. In Dr. Falsey's one scene, his youthful arrogance is undercut by a nurse pointing out that the dosage of the medication he just prescribed was ten times the recommended dose, and would have killed the patient.

Season three's first-year residents, with lines given to
Dr. Alan Po (Brian Tochi) and Dr. Elliott Axelrod (Stephen Furst).
It's an odd dynamic, especially when the show is situated in the "real" world where real-life events take place. In a recent post, I mentioned how in "Brand New Bag", Wayne Fiscus recalls Roger Clemens's 20-strikeout game, which happened in the summer of 1986. Now, he doesn't say that it just happened, but the episode obviously takes place after that, and it's implied that it was fairly recent. In that episode, or one right around that one, Dr. Craig is annoyed with the young gardener his wife hired, who is listening to a sound-alike of Stacey Q's "Two of Hearts", which was released on February 4, 1986. So it's clear that the events of season five take place in 1986.

Season 4's "Time Heals", which aired on February 19-20, 1986, is set in 1985, when St. Eligius is celebrating its 50th anniversary. In "Cheek to Cheek", which aired March 12, 1986 and takes place close to the end of Jack Morrison's second year of residency, when Mr. McAllister recognizes Jack, he asks him to remember two years earlier, when he shot and killed his wife's killer, Andrew Rhinehart. Does this mean that the events of that episode, "Cora and Arnie", which aired November 23, 1982, took place in late 1983 or early 1984? Somehow I doubt that's what the writers intended at the time.

I would need to scour through the early episodes again to see if there were distinctive pop culture references from that time, but I won't bother. The math doesn't really add up, and it's just a reminder that no matter what real-life events a work of fiction references, it's still just fiction. It does not have to play by "the rules". When I get around to writing a post on the whole "Tommy Westphall Universe" thing, I will also underline this point--it's just a work of fiction. It's just a TV show--there really are no "rules", other than the ones it implies. It's not like St. Elsewhere was a mystery story like Lost, where flaunting its own rules is like cheating. The answer to logical inconsistencies: if you're having a good time, you don't have to care.

I'd venture to say that a broad version of this point applies to all art. That's one of the fun things and insanely challenging things about creating art, especially very good art.

Added, August 19, 2012:

IMDB's FAQ has a good blurb about the time frame. It says they set it that way to allow for a longer run for the series, and residencies lasting six years is not common. At some point in the last season, Wayne's mother says, "Wayne has been at the hospital for three years, but it feels more like six."

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