ST. ELSEWHERE

ST. ELSEWHERE

St. Elsewhere was one of the most-acclaimed of the upscale serial dramas to appear in the 1980s. Along with shows like Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and thirtysomething, St. Elsewhere was a result of the demographically-conscious programming strategies that had gripped the networks during the years when cable TV was experiencing spectacular growth. Often earning comparatively low ratings, these shows were kept on the air because they delivered highly desirable audiences consisting of young, affluent viewers whom advertisers were anxious to reach. In spite of its never earning a seasonal ranking above 49th place (out of about 100 shows), St. Elsewhere aired for six full seasons on NBC from 1982-88. The series was nominated for 63 Emmy Awards and won 13.

Set in a decaying urban institution, St. Elsewhere was often and aptly compared to Hill Street Blues, which had debuted a season and a half earlier. Both shows were made by the independent production company MTM Enterprises, and both presented a large ensemble cast, a "realistic" visual style, a profusion of interlocking stories, and an aggressive tendency to break traditional generic rules. While earlier medical dramas like Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, and Marcus Welby, M.D. featured godlike doctors healing grateful patients, the staff of Boston's St. Eligius Hospital exhibited a variety of personal problems and their patients often failed to recover.

St. Elsewhere's content could be both controversial and surprising. In 1983, for instance, it became the first prime-time series episode to feature an AIDS patient. Six years before NYPD Blue began introducing nudity to network television, St. Elsewhere had shown the naked backside of a doctor (Ed Flanders) who'd dropped his trousers in front of his supervisor (Ronny Cox) before leaving the hospital and the show. It was also not uncommon for principal characters to die unexpectedly, which happened on no fewer than five occasions during the run of the series.

As a medical drama, St. Elsewhere dealt with serious issues of life and death, but every episode also included a substantial amount of comedy. The show was especially noted for its abundance of "in jokes" that made reference to the show's own ancestry. In one episode, for example, an amnesia patient comes to believe that he is Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, MTM Enterprises' first production. Throughout the episode the patient makes oblique references to MTM's entire program history. Later, in the series' final episode, a scene from the last installment of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is restaged, and the cat that had appeared on the production logo at the end of every MTM show for eighteen years, dies as the final credits roll.

St. Elsewhere proved to be a fertile training ground for many of its participants. At the start of the 1992-93 season, creators John Falsey and Joshua Brand had a critically-acclaimed series on each of the three major networks: Northern Exposure (CBS), I'll Fly Away (NBC), and Going to Extremes (ABC). Writer-producer Tom Fontana became the executive producer of Homicide: Life on the Street with Baltimore-based film director Barry Levinson. Other St. Elsewhere producers and writers went on to work on such respected series as Moonlighting, China Beach, L.A. Law, Civil Wars, NYPD Blue, ER, and Chicago Hope. Actor Denzel Washington, virtually unknown when he began his role as Dr. Philip Chandler, had become a major star of feature films by the time St. Elsewhere ended its run.

St. Elsewhere also exerted a significant creative influence on ER, the hit medical series that debuted on NBC in 1994. While the pacing of ER is much faster, both the spirit of the show and many of its story ideas have been borrowed from St. Elsewhere.

-Robert J. Thompson

 


St. Elsewhere

CAST

Dr. Donald Westphall.................................. Ed Flanders
Dr. Mark Craig....................................... William Daniels
Dr. Ben Samuels (1982-l983)....................... David Birney
Dr. Victor Ehrlich..................................... Ed Begley, Jr.
Dr. Jack Morrison .......................................David Morse
Dr. Annie Cavanero (1982-1985) ................Cynthia Sikes
Dr. Wayne Fiscus ....................................Howie Mandel
Dr. Cathy Martin (1982-1986) ...............Barbara Whinnery
Dr. Peter White (1982-1985) ......................Terence Knox
Dr. Hugh Beale (1982-1983)......................... G.W. Bailey
Nurse Helen Rosenthal .........................Christina Pickles
Dr. Phillip Chandler ..........................Denzel Washington
Dr. V. J. Kochar (1982-1984) ............................Kavi Raz
D. Wendy Armstrong (1982-1984).................. Kim Miyori
Dr. Daniel Auschlander .............................Norman Lloyd
Nurse Shirley Daniels (1982-1985) ....................Ellen Bry
Orderly Luther Hawkins............................ Eric Laneuville
Joan Halloran (1983-1984)....................... Nancy Stafford
Dr. Robert Caldwell (1983-1986) .................Mark Harmon
Dr. Michael Ridley (1983-1984)....................... Paul Sand
Mrs. Ellen Craig...................................... Bonnie Bartlett
Dr. Elliot Axelrod (1983-1998) ....................Stephen Furst
Nurse Lucy Papandrao.......................... Jennifer Savidge
Dr. Jaqueline Wade (1983-1988) .................Sagan Lewis
Orderly Warren Coolidge (1984-1988)..........Byron Stewart
Dr. Emily Humes (1984-1985)................... Judith Hansen
Dr. Alan Poe (1984-1985)............................. Brian Tochi
Nurse Peggy Shotwell (1984-1986)........... Saundra Sharp
Mrs. Hufnagel (1984-1985) ......................Florence Halop
Dr. Roxanne Turner (1985-1987)................ Alfre Woodard
Ken Valere (1985-1986)............................ George Deloy
Terri Valere (1985-1986)............................ Deborah May
Dr. Seth Griffin (1986-1988) .................Bruce Greenwood
Dr. Paulette Kiem (l986-1988)................... France Nuyen
Dr. Carol Novino (1986-1988) .....................Cindy Pickett
Dr. John Gideon (1987-1988)......................... Ronny Cox

PRODUCERS Bruce Paltrow, Mark Tinker, John Masius, John Falsey, Joshua Brand

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

NBC
October 1982-August 1983              Tuesday 10:00-11:00
August 1983-May 1988               Wednesday 10:00-11:00
July 1988-August 1988               Wednesday 10:00-11:00

FURTHER READING

Barker, David. "St. Elsewhere: The Power of History." Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), 1989.

Feuer, Jane, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, editors. MTM-"Quality Television." London: The British Film Institute, 1984.

Paisner, Daniel. Horizontal Hold: The Making and Breaking of A Network Television Pilot. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1992.

Tartikoff, Brandon, and Charles Leerhsen. The Last Great Ride. New York: Random House, 1992.

Schatz, Thomas. "St. Elsewhere and the Evolution of the Ensemble Series." In, Newcomb, Horace, editor. Television: The Critical View. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976; 4th edition 1987.

Thompson, Robert J. Good TV: The St. Elsewhere Story. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Tinker, Grant, and Bud Rukeyser. Tinker in Television: From General Sarnoff to General Electric. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Turow, Joseph. Playing Doctor: Television, Storytelling, and Medical Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

 

See also Marcus Welby, M.D.; Medic; Melodrama; Workplace Programs