'ER': The series finale, but life goes on

Noahwyle-er_240 It's tempting to make some grand pronouncement about how the series finale of "ER" is a metaphor for the show's later years, for NBC's decline, for the state of network television itself. So fine: I think we can all agree that the show -- any show that lasts this long -- was not as good in its late period as it was when it new.

What the "ER" finale was, though, was two good, solid hours of television that respected its past and its audience and left viewers in a pretty satisfying place by the time the credits rolled. There's something to be said for that.

I need a CBC, Chem 7, two units of O-neg and some spoilers, stat.

There were a few moments that felt overly sentimental, sure -- even at its best, "ER" could succumb to that disease. But John Wells, who wrote the two-hour finale, struck a pretty good balance between hitting those emotional beats, allowing space for former regulars to make one last appearance and keeping the focus on both the hospital and the people who work there now.

Lindacardellini_er_240 Wells also structured the finale very much like the show's pilot. Like that first episode, it took place over the course of 24 hours, featured a dizzying number of cases -- some comical, some dead serious -- and showed us the life of the ER through eyes both inexperienced (intern Rory Gilmore Julia Wise, played by Alexis Bledel) and jaded (Gates, Carter, Sam, et al). Specific lines of dialogue even echoed ones from the pilot, notably Brenner telling Julia that "You do the best you can, you get some sleep, then you come back and help the next one." (Even the director, Rod Holcomb, was the same.)

If the finale didn't have the raw power or energy of the pilot, though, that's partly the fault of "ER's" own success. It pretty well set the template for every medical drama that came after it, and everything it did first -- the fast pace and continuously moving camera, the sometimes graphic nature of the cases, the rivers of medical jargon -- is commonplace now.

One of the things the show always did well, though, and did so again tonight, was slow down and let emotional moments breathe. The scenes with Ernest Borgnine saying goodbye to his wife; Carter having a brief, bittersweet reunion with Kem at the opening of the health-care center named after their son; and Julia checking on the mother of twins only to find out she had died in the OR all played very well.

I don't want to get into any play-by-play here, so I'm just going to share a few more thoughts from the finale and then let you have at it.

Carter. Wells has said countless times that "ER" has mostly been Carter's story as he went from barely-old-enough-to-shave intern to resident to attending and now to the head of a center that has a chance to really help people. I came back to the show for Noah Wyle's final arc, and I feel like it ended in the right place -- with him pulling on a gown and waiting to take in a trauma case.

Familiar faces. The show made the right call, I think, in doing the big, Clooney-fied cast reunion a few weeks ago and letting the returnees tonight play a somewhat smaller role. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) and Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) are all presumably still in Chicago, so it makes sense that they'd come to the opening of the Carter Center.

Having Rachel Greene (Hallee Hirsh) come back to apply for the program at the hospital her dad used to work might be one of those sentimental moments, but the fact that the show let us see her a couple of times before revealing her name helped it go down a little easier. (It was also an excuse to get Alex Kingston back one more time as Elizabeth Corday.) And the look on Frank's face when she told him who she was? Maybe one of the best moments of the entire show. I know it certainly got a little dusty in my living room right around then.

Johnstamos_er_240 The current cast. The focal points of the current cast -- especially Gates, Sam and Archie -- all got their own moments. Gates going all righteous on the parents who let the teenage girl drink herself into a coma, Sam continuing to pull off the work-family balance and Archie showing he's a leader despite being a donut-stealer and dietary nightmare all felt right.

Old-school theme music. For the final episode, the show reverted to its original, long-form version of its opening credits, including the James Newton Howard theme music and the Benton fist-pump (which I somehow missed on first viewing; thanks for the heads-up, commenters). I also liked that the former regulars were listed along with the current stars (which the show did for the Clooney episode as well).

The final scene. The series went out with a life-goes-on moment as ambulances rolled in and the staff prepared to treat the victims of an explosion at a power station. There were no big mysteries or years-old questions "ER" had to answer, so to let the doctors, nurses and other staff at County General continue doing their jobs was as good a way to go out as any.

What did you think of the "ER" finale? Did it do right by the series that came before it?