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<I>ER</I>: This Season’s Best Medical Drama?

I've been complaining for several seasons now that ER needs to stop. For a while it got all kinds of crazy and downbeat, with too much focus on Abby and Kovac and the depressing blow after blow to their relationship. Then they killed off, or wrote off, pretty much every character I was remotely interested in. However, this season has been pretty great overall, and I'm not even really mad at all that they added in a couple extra episodes to the end. In fact, I think the show is pretty much back in top form (since I've been watching it from the get-go) and this season has been more consistently entertaining than Grey's Anatomy or House (don't even get me started on Private Practice) have been this year -- shocking words that I never would have imagined myself typing last summer when I was dreading this final send-off. Here's why I'm on board:

Patient Stories You Actually Care About
The show may be about the doctors, but often I find myself really engrossed in the cases they are working on. Neela's interaction with the young tech-savvy sickle cell patient was really touching, and showed a softer side of Neela. While these plots serve to show the true colors of the caregivers, they're not as heavy handed as on, say, Grey's, where the cases often seem truly forced to fit into that week's theme. Basically both shows do the same thing, ER is just a little bit more subtle about it lately.

Special Episodes Done Well
The promotions for the final season ever are more than a little oppressive, but if you can ignore that and just watch the show, it's actually been good. A few weeks ago they did this poignant episode about a dementia-ridden elderly patient who had visions of the hospital as it was when he worked there. It was fun to see the nurses in retro outfits and the old-school style of the ER, and flashing back and forth from current to past was pretty smart. You'd have thought an entire themed episode would have been a little much, but this flip-flopping was perfect. Not to mention how great it was to have Dr. Morgenstern (William H. Macy) back! And that wasn't the only clever story this season; Neela's Run Lola Run-esque dream episode where an alarm clock keeps resetting her day as she tries to save two patients by altering her actions ever so slightly (and we got to see Alex Kingston again!) was fantastic. They aren't afraid to break out of the patient-of-the-week mold, and for that, I give them a lot of credit.

Excellent Use of Guest Stars
Sure, everyone is all excited about George Clooney's return (and yeah, of course I'm excited about Doug Ross coming back to Chicago, too) but they've done a fantastic job of organically working in their former cast members. Even the way that they brought back Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), working him into a flashback for Angela Basset's Dr. Banfield was well done. That episode also featured the unhyped return of Rocket Romano (Paul McCrane), Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) and even Jerry (Abraham Benrubi), which was weirdly satisfying for this longtime fan. I've already mentioned the well handled reappearances of Alex Kingston and William H. Macy. I hope that they took the same care when it came to crafting an interesting return for Clooney, Noah Wyle and Eriq LaSalle. Fingers crossed.

Succeeding Even Without Its "Star Power"
While John Stamos has the dreaminess of Goran Visjnic, Noah Wyle and George Clooney, it doesn't seem like every storyline revolves around him. For many a long year, it seemed like the leading man or woman was shouldering the burden of carrying the show, filling every episode with personal information about their lives or long sojourns to foreign lands. Now the action is back in the ER, as it should be, and while Stamos' Dr. Gates certainly has his hands full with relationship drama with the stubborn Sam Taggart, and he did get a little sidetracked by a homeless vet, at least they've kept it confined to the hospital when possible. And without Abby (Maura Tierney), I feared that there would be an overabundance of focus on Neela's (Parminder Nagra) love life, but they've kept it to passing mentions or the odd B-story. (OK, maybe Brenner was a little drawn out and annoying, but at least they sent him and Ray away for a while so she could get her life in order). The show may have lost a bunch of its big name leads, but it hasn't really suffered for it at all.

So here's to the rest of the season. I certainly hope that this show goes out with a big old bang. I'm just glad that for its final bow, it has once again returned to its fine form and become a show that I can again love. When I look back on the last 15 seasons, I think I'll do it with a smile on my face. If you had fallen off the ER bandwagon along the way, it might be time to make a return trip to County General. There may be some new faces, but the quality of care is what you used to expect. I think you'll leave feeling good.

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