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After 'ER', What's Must-See TV?

George Clooney, shown on the set of <em>ER</em> in 1998, left the series in 1999 to pursue a film career.
Getty Images
George Clooney, shown on the set of ER in 1998, left the series in 1999 to pursue a film career.

Here's the odd thing about NBC's treatment of ER. The network is doing everything it can to make tonight's farewell episode a Big Event; it wants to cash in on every emotional connection from fans past and present. It wants to remind us of every award the program has won, and how it's held an honored place on the NBC schedule. From its first season in 1994, ER has occupied Thursday night — the same "Must-See TV" slot formerly occupied by L. A. Law. And, before that, by Hill Street Blues, the cop show that rewrote all the rules and ushered in a new Golden Age of TV drama.

Yet though NBC wants us to remember and care about all that, it seems like NBC itself couldn't care less. Next week, NBC will premiere a new cop series, Southland, in the coveted Thursday time slot at 10 p.m. Eastern. But come fall, Southland will either be cancelled or transplanted, because NBC's final hour of prime time, Monday through Friday, is set aside for Jay Leno.

Leno took over The Tonight Show two years before ER began. And yet, when Leno says goodbye to The Tonight Show, there won't be a trace of emotional viewing experience and shared cultural touchstone, as when Johnny Carson left after 30 years. Different time, different show, different guy, different culture. And Leno's not really leaving, just reporting for work a few hours earlier.

But ER's departure means something. Every year, there are fewer and fewer series on broadcast TV whose departures deserve more than a shrug, much less special attention. But long-running hit shows, over the years, have gathered several mini-generations of fans — and even those who stopped watching years ago are eager to return for a reunion at the end. It's a type of TV closure — and when it's done right, it's a nice national ritual. Some finales are pitch-perfect, like the end of Newhart, which smuggled in Suzanne Pleshette from Bob Newhart's previous sitcom. Some are perfect to some and infuriating to others, like the snow-globe autistic daydream ending of St. Elsewhere or the passive-aggressive non-ending of The Sopranos.

NBC has been doing it right with ER. Most of this season, individual episodes have wrapped up story lines for the newer characters, while making room for the return of older ones. George Clooney showed up, unannounced but very expected, two weeks ago, and it wouldn't be at all surprising to see him tonight as well. The plot presents a reunion of its own, so the revolving door is wide open. And to prime all these prime-time memories before showing this evening's two-hour finale, NBC is presenting a one-hour retrospective special.

What NBC isn't doing, though, is trying to replace these expensive, quality departing shows with expensive, quality new ones. The network would rather shave costs and present reality and talk shows in prime time — and its broadcast rivals aren't far behind. A few years from now, when NBC presents the farewell episode of Deal or No Deal, will anyone care? And when TV fans, a few years from now, order downloads of a full season of their favorite show, how many of them will opt for Leno?

Unless the promo department can squeeze ratings from a finale, TV history isn't appreciated very much by TV itself. This week CBS announced the cancellation of Guiding Light, a soap opera that predates television and is more than 70 years old. It's one more genre, like the made-for-TV movie and miniseries, that broadcast TV seems willing to let slip through its fingers. And even today, most of the best drama series, from Dexter and Breaking Bad to Mad Men and In Treatment, are produced and presented by cable TV. Broadcast TV may be good at saying goodbye to its best shows — but it appears to be less and less capable of replacing them.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.