ER - LIVE - EAST & WEST

Director:  Thomas Schlamme

Starring:  Anthony Edwards, George Clooney, Noah Wyle

ER opened its fourth season on September 25th, 1997 with a very atypical episode: Ambush was performed live, without cutaways or pre-recorded inserts. 

It was a bold venture, but nothing new, of course. In the pioneering days of television almost everything, even an elaborate, multi-act play, was performed live. In many cases, if a play was to be repeated, the cast would simply assemble for a second live performance (Rudolph Cartier's 1954 BBC adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, starring Peter Cushing, is perhaps the most famous example - the original version no longer survives, but the second version, re-enacted four days later, still exists). More than thirty years separate Nineteen Eighty-Four and ER, and in the interim there have been fundamental changes in the way that TV drama is made. It's now almost unheard of for any play or TV series to be transmitted live - everything is pre-filmed or recorded.

If the task of creating a live episode of ER was not daunting and complex enough, because America is divided up into several different time-zones, to keep the episode in its allocated transmission slot, the episode had to be performed two times, a couple of hours apart, so that viewers on the East Coast and the West Coast would both see a live version! Both performances were, of course, recorded as they were transmitted (another risky element of the production), so that the episode could be included in subsequent repeat seasons, and sold, as part of the ER package, to other countries. 

Most viewers (certainly everyone who didn't make some special effort) will have only seen one version. Strictly speaking, that's not entirely true, since the two episodes have since been spliced together to create the version that's now in syndication in the US, and that aired overseas (the version aired in the UK by Channel 4, for example). The first half of the syndication version comes from the East Coast version, the second from the West Coast version. The episode has a clever premise: a PBS documentary team is filming in the ER, and has installed surveillance cameras in some rooms, allowing the viewer to effortlessly flow from one area to another. The episode is an entirely remarkable achievement. The regular perky ER style is made even more kinetic by the use of hand-held cameras, although this is tempered by a series of terrific to-camera interviews and monologues, giving all the regular cast members a significant scene or two. Thomas Schlamme was nominated for an Emmy for his efforts, and, although he didn't win, the episode did pick up one for Technical Direction.

This Japanese (Region 2) disc contains both original versions. Picture quality is remarkably good, although there's an NTSC hue to the colours that will look slightly odd to fans in the UK, or other PAL territories. Detail level is very good, as is the contrast range offered. The episodes are encoded with English Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (at 192kbps) and, although there are a few moments where dialogue becomes distorted, or is slightly difficult to comprehend, this is only to be expected, since the episodes weren't shot under precisely-controlled conditions. The episode's only music was played on-set by one of the characters, mimicking the series' usual percussive style. The disc has subtitles in Japanese and (accurate) English, both are removable (although it's likely your player will default to having them switched on).

It's remarkable how similar the two versions are, but viewers will inevitably have fun trying to spot differences between the two versions. A live baseball match, being transmitted by another network, is playing in the background of one of the sets, and the score is mentioned in passing by one of the characters, for example: in the East Coast version it's "9-1 Astros", in the West Coast version it's "8-1 Cubs Behind". There are also minor technical screw-ups (a character drops his bleeper in one version). Viewers will have fun spotting characters that are no longer in the show (including long-gone characters like Maria Bello's Doctor Del Amico, and William H. Macy's Doctor David Morgernstern). Lisa Edelstein, who many viewers will recognise from guest roles in Felicity, Ally McBeal and The West Wing, or from her starring role in Leap of Faith, appears as the documentary crew's director. The episode also featured the debut of British actress Alex Kingston as Dr. Elizabeth Corday.

The disc comes with a very interesting thirty-two minute bonus feature (confusingly also apparently called ER Live West), following Noah Wyle (who plays Doctor John Carter) as he pays a whirlwind visit to Japan to promote the series, and, specifically, the release of the VHS version of the disc. This featurette is a mixture of English and Japanese. Almost all of the dialogue is in English, sometimes with burnt-in Japanese subtitles. The bulk of the featurette is press conference footage, where the questions have been edited out and replaced by Japanese captions. It's not always easy to guess what Wyle's specifically talking about, but he chats about his role, filming the two live episodes, the origins of the character, and other topics, as diverse as the chances of making an ER movie, and advice given to him by his mother (a nurse!) The documentary also contains footage of Noah making a couple of public appearances, where he seems genuinely surprised at the enthusiastic support, "I feel like George Clooney!"

The bonus documentary has a few technical deficiencies (some of it was shot using hand-held cameras, and the flashbulbs sometimes disturb the picture, for example). There are some lip-synch problems evident, too.  It's also clear that the disc's authors have (wisely) chosen to skimp a little on the bitrate for the featurette, so there are a occasional MPEG blocking artefacts evident. The end credits sequence features some tantalising footage of what looks like the read-through for the episode, and other behind-the scenes material.

The disc also contains a generic montage of ER clips and behind-the-scenes footage set to James Newton Howard's memorable ER theme music (3 minutes) and some text-based features, in Japanese.

Naturally the disc will principally be of interest to dedicated fans of the series. It's quite likely that both versions will be included when Warner Home Video releases ER - Series Four on DVD, but until then, this is the only legitimate way of getting hold of them. It may be somewhat of a risk, buying the disc when a domestic release may be imminent, but it's a nice collector's item, and something rare and exotic for your collection.

JULY 2005 UPDATE

Contrary to expectations, the UK release of the fourth season of ER does not feature both versions of the episode. The series has yet to be released in the US.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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