Dr. Ross hangs up his stethoscope TV: George Clooney's character on 'ER' has been good medicine for us.


Who knows Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney) of "ER" better than Nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies), the woman who made an almost-honest man out of him?

Her final assessment of Ross last week after he unilaterally decided to help a mother euthanize her dying son, violating a raft of hospital policies and promises to colleagues, came down to this: "You don't need anybody else, Doug. You are a country unto yourself. You just make decisions, ruin people's lives -- narcissism elevated to a high art."

Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), once a best friend, called him a liar to his face and declared in no uncertain terms that he's finally had enough of what he has come to label as Ross' "cowboy crap."

Where has all the love gone, Doug?

Dr. Ross leaves "ER" tonight after five seasons and the conclusion of a three-week story arc, in which the very combination of compassion for kids and ego-cum-narcissism brings big trouble to the pediatrician and his colleagues at County General Memorial Hospital.

The connection we make with characters like Ross is one of the most fascinating, wonderful and mysterious things about the relationship between our television and ourselves.

As Part 2 ended last week, Ross had crashed his SUV in a snowstorm trying to get to a wrecked school bus full of kids who need medical attention. Part of the suspense is whether Ross will find a way to get to the school bus so he can re-enact one last time the "ER" ur-narrative of Ross screwing up, hurting people and then redeeming it all through an act of heroism, usually involving kids. Remember the watery episode in 1995 in which Ross risked his life to save a boy trapped in a storm drain?

The producers have done a nice job of setting up tonight's finale for Ross, which they and NBC have declined to make available for preview. When you have the No. 1 show on television, you don't need to risk some fool critic blowing the ending in hopes of getting a big audience. It is the highest-rated series of the decade, and Ross has been a big part of that success.

The farewell arc started on Feb. 4 with a lovely overture of images showing Ross awakening at 4: 30 a.m. in bed with Hathaway and silently slipping away to start his shift at the hospital while she slept. There was not a word of dialogue in the segment, which played out before the opening credits rolled.

It was all emotion and image, pictures playing over a piano elegy as Ross takes one last look at Hathaway in bed and then pulls on the watch cap and coat and heads off alone on the dark streets of Chicago. A series of shots from behind show him disappearing in clouds of steam rising from building vents on the downtown streets. Ross seemed to be vaporizing or passing into another realm before our eyes -- as indeed he will tonight.

As much as I like the ending so far, I have to admit I do not feel as moved as I did heading into the last episodes for Baltimore Homicide Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) in May and NYPD Detective Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) in November. But his impact was large enough to make millions of us care enough to tune in week after week.

You can start the explanation by trying to place Ross on a historical continuum. The most obvious link is to Dr. Ben Casey (Vince Edwards) of the medical drama "Ben Casey," which aired on ABC from 1961 to '66. Both are young, handsome doctors, the M.D. as Elvis in scrubs.

The doctor as sexy bad boy is certainly part of the appeal, says David Mills, an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter for his work on "NYPD Blue," "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "ER."

Mills wrote three scripts for "ER" last season as part of his job as a staff producer on the doctor drama. The people who know Ross better than perhaps even Hathaway are the writers and producers like Mills, who take the characters Michael Crichton created and manufacture story lines for them.

Mills says there are three phases in the history of Ross.

"In the early years of the show, he was the lovable rogue," Mills said. "He was the drinking, carousing guy. The only thing that tempered it was his being a champion for children."

The self-destructive behavior got pretty bad during this period. Ross hit a bottom of sorts in the third season, when one of his one-night stands, high on cocaine and alcohol, died of a seizure.

"But then, by the fourth season, he had been domesticated by his relationship with Hathaway, and that was a different kind of character," Mills said. "He only had his good side now, which was his love of kids." That and the fact that he appeared to be a fairly supportive boyfriend for Hathaway despite what we knew about his worst tendencies.

This combination seems like it might be a potent one, especially for some female viewers. The producers and writers are clearly trying to exploit it for all it's worth in the finale thus far, as Ross goes with his heart and risks his career out of compassion not just for the dying boy but the boy's suffering mom.

But, in the end, Ross doesn't exist in a perfect fictional vacuum, Mills said. And that's part of what will make it less painful than it was with Pembleton and Simone for me to say goodbye.

"Speaking only for myself when I sat down to write Ross, I have to say that he was less of a deep character by the fourth season. Part of that was because he had been domesticated, but more importantly we also faced the very practical problem by then that George Clooney was spending so much time away doing film work that we could not build big story lines with him," Mills said.

"We always made an effort to have a few scenes with him just to keep his presence there. But the very nature of those stories had to be very truncated. So you couldn't really sink your teeth into Ross any more," he said, explaining the real-world reasons why the character might have seemed more presence than person the last 18 months or so, facilitating a kind of gradual viewer withdrawal.

And isn't that just the thing about these farewells to favorite characters? Their parting forces us to remember the very truth we must forget in order to believe in them: that they are artificial commodities manufactured as part of a industry that is, in the final analysis, always more business than art.

Ross is leaving because George Clooney, the actor, wants to move on, just as Andre Braugher's career decision deprives us of the pleasure of Pembleton's company. That is why some of us sometimes get angry at the actor who is taking away our favorite character, as we did with David Caruso when he decided he was too big for "NYPD Blue" and brought an end to Detective John Kelly.

Maybe it's a mistake to so believe in make-believe characters, over whose lives we cannot control. But I think the special ones like Ross can enrich us as we examine our own lives through our involvement in theirs. Ross leaves some of us tonight a little better for all the Thursday nights we've spent together.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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