Friday, May 11, 2012

The Pop Culture Game Show

St. Elsewhere... Where TV went to get pomo, meta, and intertextual.

I have to give credit for a lot of what I'm going to write in this blog (if I keep it up) to professor Robert Thompson, who, if you're going to judge based on who most often gets called to be the expert academic analyst on TV shows about TV, is a leading authority among academics who study television, or in particular, "quality television". Here's another scholar's take on term "quality television", and why he doesn't like it. My opinion is that the "quality television" label is historically situated, and is not just a relational term, but cannot be used as a category beyond the specific time period in which it originated. The TVscape continues to evolve, and old labels and approaches don't apply the way they used to.

After falling in love with St. Elsewhere when I was in high school, I ordered Robert Thompson's book Television's Second Golden Age from Amazon because, according to my web research, it was the only book out there with any significant information about the show. That's probably still the case, and it was published in 1996. The book has a whole chapter devoted to St. Elsewhere, and one to Hill Street Blues as well. What I learned about the show in this book has had a significant impact on how I've experienced the series.

Thompson makes a good case that St. Elsewhere was more than simply "Hill Street in a hospital." The thing that pushed it into a new realm was its writing. The writers took great pleasure in making references to pop culture, particularly television shows. Watching the show was like a dramatic pop-culture game show, and you played by spotting the puns and references. "Intertextuality", or making references to fiction outside of itself, had been around in stories for a long time, but St. Elsewhere took it to extremes never seen before in television, and it's unlikely that any show will attempt to do anything like that again, lest it be accused of trying to re-invent the wheel (a wheel that today's audiences would likely have no interest in).

I think the only reason I even started watching the show was because I had heard of its legendary series finale--the whole series was imagined by an autistic boy who imagined his father and grandfather were the administrative heads of the hospital represented by the small building in his snow globe. The last thing that happens is the boy's father placing the snow globe on top of their television. In a way, St. Elsewhere became a regurgitation of the history of television. I say "became" because it didn't start out that way; the writers increased the "meta" factor as the show progressed. The thing I enjoy about that is that there's no reason for a medical drama that used the Hill Street formula of a large ensemble cast with ongoing soap-style storylines to become a celebration of decades of television culture. However, it kind of makes sense if it was all dreamed up by an autistic child who saw a lot of TV.

Unfortunately, I am too young to be able to recognize all of the references the show makes, because of the limits of television syndication. I didn't get to watch a lot of TV shows from the fifties, sixties and seventies, the ones the writers had consumed and absorbed and even cut their creative teeth on. Many of the ones I get now I get because I read the Thompson book. I never would have known that a character named detective Mike Stone (if I recall correctly, the cop who investigates the murder of Peter White) was a nod to The Streets of San Francisco (1972-77), the Quinn Martin police procedural starring Karl Malden (as Stone) and a young Michael Douglas.

These types of observations are going to depend a lot on my own TV-watching from my childhood. I only know what a Quinn Martin production was because A&E used to show reruns of The Fugitive. Now, if anyone happens to read this blog, and has observations to contribute, please share them through the comments form.

I don't hold out much optimism (I have no idea how long I'll keep this up), but I would love to do at least a bit of justice to what St. Elsewhere has to offer and to express what I enjoyed about watching it, and failing that, I'd love to at least share my appreciation for the culture of television that brought me so much entertainment over the years.

I don't intend to limit my writing to just expounding on Thompson's analysis, but it will definitely be a major influence here. I must confess that I look forward to doing posts whenever I spot one of Thompson' observed references. If you enjoy them--buy the book! I did.


  1. Hello, Daniel and St. E fans. I'm watching the show from beginning to end on IMDb TV. Loving it! Saw random episodes back in the day, roughly starting with Season 3 and the imcomparable Mrs. Hufnagel.

    Anyway, that brings me to Shirley Daniels. I believe she shoots Peter in episode 3.9. Within roughly the next two episodes, Dr. Morrison confides in Dr. Westphal about a number of issues he's dealing with including his decision to approach Shirley and her gun on the roof. He realizes he is Pete's only remaining parent and the risk he took may not be even close to worthwhile, when balanced against Pete's welfare.

    So, I came to this page - cheating - to find out what became of Shirley. Now I learn she's going to turn the gun on Jack - AGAIN. I could sense the writers villainizing (is that a word?) Shirley with her subtle weirdness as she moved closer to killing Peter.

    I just finished the episode where she has her appendix removed. I will be hating her moving forward.

  2. Hello, Daniel and Michael T. Even though I'm writing this 10 years and 1 year after your posts, I'm glad to see other fans commenting on St. E and it's significance to them.

    I started watching the show in the middle of Season 4, when there was a lot of media buzz over Mark Harmon's character being diagnosed with AIDS--still a relatively new disease then. St. E was groundbreaking in many ways, including having a very popular heterosexual character contract the disease. I watched the two-part episode of his departure, which was followed by "Time Heals" and then reruns from the first three seasons. At that point, I was hooked. Currently, I am re-watching the series on Hulu and have just started Season Three.

    What drew me in? The characters, how I came to care about them through their relationships, and how anything could happen to any character on the show. The large ensemble cast gave the writers a lot of leeway to experiment. By Season 4, regular characters had already turned rapist, murdered another character, committed suicide, and been fired. It's not that the show reveled in bad things happening to doctors and nurses, but it was a reflection of how uncertain life is, and how imperfect and flawed people can still be caring and dedicated professionals.

    As for the meta aspects, those were occasionally fun and surreal--a sign of the show not taking itself too seriously. In Episode 3.3, Mark and Ellen Craig watch "a comedian" on TV who is clearly Howie Mandel (Dr. Wayne Fiscus). So, in the St. E universe, there is a comedian who sounds like Fiscus and even uses the same gags such as wearing a balloon on his head. Never mind. You can drive yourself crazy trying to figure this out. (Take that, Tommy Westphall Universe haters!)

    Besides, I'm still trying to figure out the timeline. At the end of Season Two, the residents are finish up their first year of residency, which means that everything in the first two seasons took place in a single year. I'm not sure if this works out chronologically as a lot of things happen in that year--including the birth of Jack Morrison's son, the death of his wife, and meeting Clancy--but it's part of the ride.


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