20th Century Fox has finally – finally! – released one of the best television dramas of the ‘80s on DVD: “St. Elsewhere.” Given that the cast includes the Oscar-winning Denzel Washington, game show host extraordinaire Howie Mandel, and the voice of K.I.T.T., William Daniels, it’s almost dumbfounding that it hasn’t come out before now.
The importance of “St. Elsewhere” in establishing the current state of medical-related TV shows can’t be overstated. Every show from “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Scrubs” owes a debt to the creation of John Falsey and Joshua Brand, and you can see it from the very first episode because of one particular trademark technique: the tracking shot. It’s used on a regular basis during the show, moving through the hallways of St. Eligius Hospital, effortlessly shifting from one conversation to another, in order to follow the stories of any number of the series’ characters. There’s a similarity to “Scrubs” in that several of the major characters within the series are first-year interns; additionally, the various eccentric plot lines – sometimes done in a dramatic fashion, sometimes done purely for comedy – were unique at the time. In the case of Ralph, a guy who thought he was a bird, the show went both comedic and dramatic before all was said and done. This was not so long after the era of “Marcus Welby” or “Dr. Kildare,” where doctors were incredibly serious and generally infallible, so the idea of having patients dying on a semi-regular basis was also a bit odd.
The characters within St. Eligius are wide and varied, but rarely are they unrealistic. There’s the father figure of the hospital, Dr. Donald Westphal (Ed Flanders), the grandfather figure, Dr. Daniel Auschlander (Norman Lloyd), and the gruff but occasionally loveable surgeon, Dr. Daniel Craig (William Daniels). You’ve got the office manager who’s seen it all (Christine Pickles), the resident goofball (Mandel, naturally), and, of course, the interns. The rapport between the grouchy Dr. Craig and easily flustered intern Dr. Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.) is priceless. The only character who stands out as being a bit over the top is that of Dr. Peter White (Terence Knox), who, before the season’s over, has been separated from his wife, gotten a drug problem, slept with a couple of different nurses, and had something approximating a nervous breakdown. Even with Dr. White, though, you have a suspicious that he’s not the first intern to come to the precipice and find himself doing some serious teetering.
The two acting performances that consistently stand out throughout the first season are those of David Morse and, no shock here, Denzel Washington. Washington, who plays Dr. Philip Chandler, clearly had his acting chops from the very beginning of his career, because there’s little difference in his technique between then and now…and that’s intended as a compliment. His big spotlight in Season 1 of “St Elsewhere” comes when his character is slapped with a wrongful death lawsuit, and he refuses to take it lying down. Morse, meanwhile, is one of those guys who you see all over the place and can never think of his name – he’s recently done a stint on “House,” he used to star in “Hack,” and he’s been in movies from “The Rock” and “12 Monkeys” to “16 Blocks” and “The Green Mile” – but he got his start here. As Dr. Jack Morrison, he plays a married man who’s just having his first child, and he always seems to be struggling to find time for everything; his stress is palpable in some scenes, and he’s always believable in his role.
The trifecta that allows “St. Elsewhere” to hold up over twenty years later is simple: good characters, good stories, and good acting. In fact, this set would’ve scored higher than the four-star rating if it wasn’t for the special features.Special Features: It’s damned disappointing that the special features on this set are so limited. There’s only one audio commentary, and it doesn’t even involve a member of the regular cast; director Mark Tinker sits with guest-star Doris Roberts (Ray’s mom on “Everybody Loves Raymond”) for the episode “Cora and Annie,” but that’s it. There are four featurettes, but they total up to just over a half-hour’s worth of viewing. The ten-minute documentary on the show as a whole is disappointing, since we only get a few moments with a few of the cast members – Mandel, Christine Pickles, Barbara Whinnery, and David Morse – and not a tremendous amount of insight into the series. Morse gets his own featurette, which is more illuminating, and Roberts gets her own segment as well (she apparently has a lot of time on her hands), but the best doc comes courtesy of guest-star Tim Robbins. Turns out “St. Elsewhere” was his very first acting gig, and he showed up two hours late for his first day because he overslept after attending a Clash concert. I knew there was a reason I liked Tim Robbins.