St. Elsewhere was another quality product from MTM, the company that produced the superior police drama Hill Street Blues, and shared many of the innovative cinema verite techniques and edge of gritty realism that marked the Blues as cutting edge drama. Indeed, it was common knowledge that amongst MTM executives that the series was seriously considered to be a medical version of the critically acclaimed cop show.
Located in a rundown inner city Boston neighbourhood, St. Elsewhere was the derisive nickname given to St. Eligius teaching hospital, a once great institution long since past its prime, which serves the urgent medical needs of the inhabitants of an area which is also in the same predicament. Led by the sensitive, but tough administrator, Dr. Donald Westphall, the series charted the constant merry-go-round of the daily tales of personal and professional triumphs and failures, which form the core of hospital life.
Created by the accomplished team of Joshua Brand and John Falsey, who would later go on to create the quirky, Northern Exposure, St. Elsewhere was partly inspired by the real life experiences of a friend of Brand's who had worked in a Cleveland teaching hospital. With a deft mixture of warmly intimate drama on a human scale and the ever present backdrop of larger scale medical issues, the series successfully and effortlessly conveyed the sense of a fast-paced hospital through the expert use of hand-held camera work, multiple intersecting storylines and sharply written overlapping dialogue.
Again, as with Hill Street Blues, a large and talented ensemble cast was employed to bring life to the varied characters of the hospital staff with uniformly excellent effect. Alongside Flanders, Dr. Westphall, the core triumvirate of seasoned performers who represented the hospital's most senior staff were made up of William Daniels (the voice of the super-car, KITT, in Knightrider), as the egotistical but brilliant senior heart surgeon, Dr. Mark Craig, and hugely respected character actor Norman Lloyd as the terminally cancer stricken, but still dedicated to his profession, Dr. Daniel Auschlander. Amongst the ranks of the more junior actors where such future household names as Ed Begley Jnr. as Dr. Victor Ehrlich, Mark Harmon (later to become a regular on Chicago Hope) as Dr. Robert Caldwell, and showing the early promise which would eventually make him a major motion picture star, the young Denzel Washington as Dr. Phillip Chandler.
Although amassing an impressive eight Emmy Awards during the course of its five- year run, and despite attracting devotedly loyal following of dedicated core viewers, the show suffered from inconsistent ratings. On May 25, 1988, St. Elsewhere closed its doors to for the final time. In a move which was typical of Joshua Brand and John Falsey's established disregard for the approved dramatic conventions of network drama, St. Elsewhere's final, surreal scene intimated that everything that had gone before during the show's run had been nothing but an elaborate fantasy played out within the enclosed imagination of the Westphall's young son.
Much as its stable mate Hill Street Blues had revitalised the moribund police series of the time, so St. Elsewhere's fresh, edgy, complexly textured approach rejuvenated the safe and cosy medical genre in such a way that the groundwork was successfully laid for the future success of later US medical favourites such as ER and Chicago Hope, and as such, the series has more than earned its highly regarded place in U.S. television history.
Published on February 4th, 2019. Written by Steve Hulse (2000) for Television Heaven.