‘ER’: ‘Old Times’ with Clooney


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“Restraint” is not a word normally associated with network television these days, and certainly not in conjunction with an appearance by George Clooney. And Thursday’s episode of “ER” has indeed been the subject of an inevitable maelstrom of feverish speculation — there were confirmed reports of Julianna Margulies reprising her role as Carol Hathaway, but would Clooney return as her longtime love Doug Ross? Entire message boards melted down at the thought.

But instead of capitalizing on the meteoric rise of one of the show’s first (and then little-known) stars, John Wells and his team gave us a lesson in the awesome power of understatement.


There he was, just as if none of it had ever happened. The Oscar, the bat suit, the directorial debut, Danny Ocean, the whole sexiest man alive thing, that weird interview by Julia Roberts. Stunningly accessorized with scrubs, stethoscope and Margulies, Clooney looked for all the world as if he had never left the mother planet of “ER.” As if Doug and Carol had been simply living an alternative life in Seattle, raising the twins, no doubt doing a lot of volunteer work, waiting perhaps for Wells to pull a Shonda Rhimes, send them to Malibu, give them their own spinoff show.

Thursday night’s episode may have been titled “Old Times,” but this potentially High Drama reunion was slipped in among a jumble of plots and performances that seemed designed to, if not outshine it, then to keep it in perspective. On top of two major organ transplants — one involving Dr. Carter (Noah Wyle)! — there were the revival of an abandoned infant, the return of Dr. Benton (Eriq La Salle) and Susan Sarandon, for goodness’ sake, looking gorgeous and tortured as the grandmother of a Seattle boy who is brain dead after being hit by a car. But wait, was that Ernest Borgnine as the husband of an ailing elderly woman? Yes, it was. Ernest Borgnine, people!

On any other show, all of this would add up to something called “reaching,” an over-much of muchness sure to sink into a swamp of sentiment, crazy-strained plot lines and Important Final Messages from the writing staff. But this is “ER,” groundbreaking from first to last, which has managed the remarkable feat of surviving 15 seasons of love and squalor with, as J.D. Salinger would say, all its f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

So instead of the more predictable scenario of Doug and Carol realizing, with shock and tears, that the kidney they were sending off to Northwestern would save the life of world-wise but still adorable Carter, viewers were treated to a much more moving scene as Doug quietly talks Sarandon’s grandmother through the final stages of farewell so she can bring herself to surrender her grandson’s organs. Yes, the narrative was a clear endorsement of organ donation, but Sarandon’s performance provided the requisite counterweight of loss that such a procedure requires.

Which isn’t to say the Clooney charm had been banned from the set — in one small but lovely segment, Doug wanders into the room where all the doctors are awaiting the organs and after discovering that some of them are from County, grills Neela (Parminder Nagra) about who’s still there. As Neela and Samantha (Linda Cardellini) do a roll call of the more recent seasons of “ER,” Doug grins that famous grin and ruefully shakes his handsome but now graying head — there is no stopping time, and the difference between popular television and great television comes from understanding the definitions of “less” and “more.”

-- Mary McNamara