Written by Hombre Divertido
As the twelfth season of the classic hospital drama hit the shelves on January 12th, 2010, one could not help but be intrigued by packaging that, for the first time, displayed no pictures of any original cast members. With the virtual disappearance of Sherry Stringfield’s Doctor Susan Lewis (apparently if you leave a hit show a second time, it is without fanfare) and the departure of Noah Wiley’s Doctor John Carter (who does manage to make a few appearances in season twelve, but only as a special guest) the show embarks on a new season with the changing of the guard now complete.
Due to the eleventh-year ending with one of the weaker season finales in the history of the series, season twelve opens with a mess to clean up. The first episode ("Cañon City") accomplishes that, but Linda Cardellini’s performance as Sam the frantic mom in search of her runaway son is a bit tired, and stretches the competent actress beyond her abilities. On the bright side, the episode marks the beginning of the end for the relationship between Sam and Luka (Goran Visinjic). Said relationship struggled through season eleven almost as much as the audience struggled to watch the storyline.
Where season eleven faltered with writing for the series veterans, season twelve gives the audience more of what they want. Shane West as Dr. Ray Barnett and Scott Grimes as Dr. Archie Morris were underutilized in season eleven, but are given the opportunity to shine in season twelve. West’s Barnett brings a youthful energy to the series not seen in the ER in years, while Grimes’ Morris brings subtle humor to the show for the first time. Though Grimes would remain with the show through the final season, his comedic abilities remained unappreciated.
Along with Grimes and West, the more experienced members of the ER cast are certainly given their respective time to show what they can do. Most noticeable is the performance of Maura Tierney in episode eleven “If Not Now” where Abby ponders a life-changing decision. Let us also mention that though the packaging may not show their pictures, there are some cast members who have been around since season one and they are given some solid screen time in season twelve as well. Yvette Freeman gets some wonderful storylines as Haleh and does great work, and Abraham Benrubi as the endearing Jerry steals scenes in several episodes.
Where the regulars shine, the newcomers tend to come up short as continued attempts to add an antagonist fail. Kristen Johnston as Nurse Manager Eve Peyton certainly added an imposing female force to the cast, and the characters ability to be imposing yet less confrontational than Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) was entertaining, but eventually there was little for her to do. Also added to the mix was new attending Doctor Victor Clemente portrayed by John Leguizamo. His performance was solid albeit limited in dimension, and ultimately, arrogant and screwed up have both been done better by previous characterizations.
Whereas the performances of the series regulars were consistently good, the writing in season twelve hits both highs and lows rarely seen in years past. The episodes spent following Doctor Carter in Africa are interesting, but ultimately too much time is spent away from the ER, and both the character of Doctor Greg Pratt and the performance of Mekhi Phifer seem lost. Nonetheless, anytime spent in Africa in season twelve is preferable to the time spent in episode six “Dream House”. From the treating of a monkey to the antics of Dr Dabenko (Leland Orser) on the two-way mobile television, this is one of the worst episodes in the series. The writing rebounds in episode eight “Two Ships” which smoothly blends exciting storylines featuring not only our regular cast but those involving patients, visitors, and characters normally found outside the ER.
The season finale certainly is filled with excitement, but the script is too contrived, the guest performances are weak, and ultimately it’s just enough already with the stories about Sam’s family.
Many of the episodes of season twelve are enhanced by music like never before in the series. Martin Davich’s work with the music in the final scene of “If Not Now” is amazing as he frames a picture in sound worthy of award consideration.
Above all else it is directing that leads the way in season twelve as ER displays true elegance in its storytelling. Episode 13 “Body and Soul” features a subtly brilliant performance by James Woods, but it is the writing of Joe Sachs and the directing of our old friend Paul McCrane that makes this star shine.
Unaired scenes make up the bonus material in this release, and the lack of any other extras continues to be a disappointment with each new set of "ER" DVDs.
Recommendation: After a disappointing season eleven, it is time to check back into County General. ER comes back stronger in season twelve and lays some promising groundwork for the coming years.