Arriving just in time for Christmas, another classic television series has managed to wend its way onto DVD. Newly released is season one of St. Elsewhere. It’s the story of St. Eligius Hospital, known as “St. Elsewhere” to many due to its status as a patient dumping ground in Boston, where many people believe far better hospitals exist.
St. Elsewhere follows several medical residents and attending physicians at St. Eligius as they go about their jobs. Early on the series establishes itself through the eyes of Dr. Jack Morrison (David Morse), a young medical resident with more heart than may be good for him, and a young wife who, we find out a few episodes in, is pregnant. Jack’s struggles with his emotions are evident as early as the second episode, when he repeatedly clashes with one patient, played by Tim Robbins. He is unable to make Robbins’ character, a rich kid turned would-be bank robber, understand the enormity of what he’s done and the people he’s hurt. There are, naturally, emergency room residents, surgical residents, several attending physicians, and even a chief of staff. The show follows not just their professional lives, but their personal ones as well. Their personal lives virtually always seems to clash with their medical ones, but that is one of the show’s main points.
Though it was never a top ten series, St. Elsewhere did have its share of fans during its six seasons and provided a road map for future medical programs. In its pilot episode, St. Elsewhere does a long hand-held shot following one of the doctors down a corridor in St. Eligius Hospital. While ER uses a steadicam for this sort of move, and adds far more up-tempo music, it is apparent that they have lifted the idea (in a positive way) from St. Elsewhere. Actually, much of St. Elsewhere occurs at a far more lackadaisical pace than ER, or a more recent medical drama, but much of the conversations remain the same. Stories about cash shortages, intra-hospital romance, new-fangled surgical techniques, and crime are all as much a part of St. Elsewhere as newer programs.
Another large way in which this show is different from later medical dramas is that unlike an ER, St. Elsewhere seems to follow very few standard medical rules. This may be willful on the part of the producers or maybe a decision was made that following normal medical practices makes no difference. One of the larger examples of this is that the residents cover calls (late- or over-night shifts) for other residents that aren’t in the same specialty. For example, in a very early episode a surgeon covers a call for an emergency room doctor. This sort of thing could never actually occur as their specialties are different and the surgeon might be called on to perform duties they are incapable of handling. In fact, the doctors actually all round on the same patients, another thing that wouldn’t occur on a daily basis. A smaller point in this same vein is that the residents all wear short white coats instead of long ones. Doctors will tell you that a short coat denotes a student, not an intern or a resident. These departures from real-world practices don’t make a difference for the vast majority of the audience, but does hurt those who know standard practice as it pulls them out of their suspension of disbelief.
One of the more fascinating elements of St. Elsewhere is its cast, which boasts in its first season: Ed Begley Jr., Howie Mandel, David Morse, William Daniels, and Denzel Washington among others (many of the more famous names would stay around for the entire length of the series).
The DVD transfer for this series is sometimes wanting, as there are several shots in every episode that appear overly grainy for no discernible reason. Additionally, this four-disc set uses both sides of the four DVDs as opposed to only using one side and making it eight discs. This makes is a little difficult to determine, upon first glance, which side of the DVD contains which episodes.
As for bonus features, while they are minimal in number, they do provide interesting background into the series and some of its characters. There is a featurette on the recurring part played by Tim Robbins, as well one on Jack Morrison. Another featurette discusses the “Cora and Arnie” episode, while a final one talks about the show as a whole and tells about how people came to work on the series.
St. Elsewhere is an interesting study in television and our society almost 25 years ago. Some themes and story arcs that appear in the series are just as relevant today as they ever were, whereas other moments seem incredibly dated. Fans of the series will absolutely enjoy revisiting it, though I doubt that the DVD release will garner a new legion of devotees.