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ER: Operating brilliantly to the end

Stop with the bashing, people. "Ooh, 'ER' isn't what it used to be." Please. When you start from the lofty heights "ER" established back in 1994, you can fall pretty far and still be practically the best thing on network TV.

That's why I've kept watching for all 15 seasons, through thick (those heady early years) and thin (helicopter dismemberment). I knew these folks still had it in them to nail it. And they have, this final season, reachieving what made this hospital drama great in the first place - a real-world mix of life-or-death medicine and empathetic characters, zipping past at multi-tasking pace, shot with cinematic authenticity.

"ER" always throbbed with the life signified by that heartbeat theme song, its young leads earnestly learning by making mistakes in their high-stakes careers and their private lives. That balance originally tilted toward hospital drama, then shifted too far toward personal soap. As it righted again, these final weeks are reminding us what a gut-punch a network drama can throw.

Balance is how "ER" initially knocked our socks off. It honed the big "sweeps episode" in both nail-biting intimacy ( Anthony Edwards battling to save a mother in labor) and exterior adventure ( George Clooney with a kid trapped in a sewer during a downpour). It gave its medical professionals gravitas, then turned on a dime to goofy antics. Regular characters were sketched in nuance, on the fly, as they coped with the chaos. Even guest stars could be indelible while passing through in snapshot, without resolution. "ER" focused on the journey, not the destination.

Now it's reaching its own end. Much of what "ER" pioneered has become so commonplace, we don't appreciate the show's pacesetting. We take for granted walk-and-talk, intensity editing, continuous sets, widescreen framing, point-of-view shooting, time-shift storytelling with interwoven flashbacks, ambient sound and moody montage.

But all in one place? With heart-rending characters often delivering a topical wallop? As former regulars reappeared this season as guests, "ER" revisited its multifaceted ambition. William H. Macy's return during his senile mentor's ER distress gave us poignant personal drama, plus medical insight when the man's age helped him spot tuberculosis, and even a history of emergency medicine in flashbacks to his own youth in the same building.

It was smart, it had heart, and it unreeled with restraint, in a TV era now consumed with stylistic flash, graphic depiction and/or sentimental overkill.

Not that "ER" did that consistently. In the viewer-chasing seasons when ratings took a dive, the show sorely missed a central perspective, characters got too hard-edged, and plots could be in-your-face absurd.

But there was something reassuring about "ER" always being there, aiming to restore the mix that made it the last true mainstream TV smash. When the show shot to the top of the Nielsens that first season - staying the top-ranked drama seven years straight - it grabbed a 36 share of the audience. That means one in three American households watching TV was watching "ER."

We were all in it together then. As we might be when it ends. It won't happen again.

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