Retro Recommendations: St. Elsewhere (1982-88)

Written Triaging 20th Century Television by Bridger Cunningham.
Can critical acclaim save a show?  NBC had a plethora of 80's sensations who relied on this one grace, as all rated poorly.  Knight Rider, St. Elsewhere, Family Ties and Cheers were in the ratings cellar during the 1982-83 season, and would eventually become NBC's most reliable performers throughout that decade.  Hill Street Blues debuted to these dire conditions in 1981 and somehow managed to squeeze its way into 21st Place, forecasting potential growth for several of NBC's players.  Among them, St. Elsewhere needed a prayer.  Placing in 87th Place for the season, it dodged cancellation, running for 6 seasons total, most of which rated mediocre at best.  Look back on the premise of the series and examine why this show became a critical darling.
SEASON 1 (1982-83) 87th Place, No Rating Available.
The setting of this titular series was St. Eligius Hospital in Boston, nicknamed St. Elsewhere due to its rundown reputation.  Run by hospital administrator Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders), he struggles to keep the place afloat with the help of ailing Dr. Daniel Auschlander (Norman Lloyd), whom is suffering from terminal cancer.  The snarky, arrogant chief of surgery, Dr. Mark Craig (William Daniels) pesters and belittles his interns, demanding nothing but excellence.  A frequent source of irritation for him is Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.).  Denzel Washington made his series debut as Dr. Phillip Chandler.  Peter White (Terence Knox) was a troubled intern with a family to support (Candace Cameron played Peter's daughter, Megan, from 1982-84).  His best friend, Dr. Jack Morrison (David Morse) trails the pack of interns, yet balanced his shortcomings with his kindness and soul.  Rounding out the cast were intern Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel), nurse Helen Rosenthal (Christina Pickles), Dr. Ben Samuels (David Birney), resident psychologist Dr. Hugh Beale (G.W. Bailey), Dr. Annie Cavanero (Cynthia Sykes), East Indian Dr. Vijay Kochar (Kavi Raz) and orderly Luther Hawkins (Eric Laneuville).
Image result for st. elsewhere mtm catStories for the first season revolved around the woes of the medical residents, financial tribulations for the hospital and occasional romps between the staff.  Ad Jack struggled to gain his footing in medicine, Peter dabbled with a crumbling home life and drug addiction.  The season finale prepared for cancellation, as it was one of NBC's lowest-rated entries.  The critical glory and NBC's poor stance, however, saved the series.  The finale featured the gruesome death of an addict, the birth of a child and several plots being resolved to satisfaction.  Given this was an MTM production, the iconic kitten donned scrubs at the close of each set of closing credits.
SEASON 2 (1983-84) 70th Place, 13.2 Rating
Showrunners recognized any series with a large ensemble needs rotation, as its stories do as well.  Birney and Beale were let go following Season 1.  In their place, recurring nurse Shirley Daniels (Ellen Bry) and recurring medical resident Dr. Wendy Armstrong (Kim Miyori) received upgrades to contract status.  Nancy Stafford entered the series as hospital Joan Halloran, and Mark Harmon electrified the lineup as cad Dr. Bobby Caldwell.  The tone of earlier episodes prevailed early into the season, until the shocking death of Jack's wife.  In a gripping episode tying into the trending organ transplants, Jack agrees to allow a beloved patient have her heart.  The patient ultimately dies, compounding Jack's grief as he struggled as a resident and single father.
Image result for st. elsewhere rapistThe later part of the season took a dark, mysterious turn as a ski-masked rapist targeted women in the hospital.  After several unknown characters were targeted, viewers were delivered a cruel shock as promiscuous undertaker, Dr. Cathy Martin (Barbara K. Whinnery) was attacked by the rapist, revealed to be Peter.  After she subsequently disappears, Peter is revealed after attacking Wendy and arrested.  To the hospital's shock and disgust, Peter was not only released from prison, but permitted to practice medicine in their very hospital.  The season ended with a tragic suicide, as well as the residents being evaluated for third-year considerations.  Again, another Emmy-worthy season wrapped up as though the series would be cancelled.
SEASON 3 (1984-85) 49th Place, 13.4 Rating
St. Elsewhere's ratings perked up this season as not only were viewers discovering the controversial series, but NBC's woes also turned for better.  Like the previous season, showrunners pruned the roster, removing Miyori, Stafford and Raz.  Stephen Furst received an upgrade to contract status as bumbling Dr. Elliot Axelrod. The season launched with a praised nurse's strike briefly lightening the dark tone, though the ski mask rapist returned early in the season.  Dr. Peter White was reinstated and frequently fended off accusations, especially after Cathy was tragically raped again.  Enraged, Shirley Daniels took justice into her own hands in November, shooting and killing Peter (who this time around was not the guilty party).  
Related imageShirley was eventually incarcerated, and Bry and Knox exited the series.  The tone of the season's remains focused on a tighter roster, and also included a comical arc featuring chronic patient Florence Huffnagel (Florence Halop) irritating the staff to comic proportions before dying in the hospital's folding bed.  The staff found it humorous, until Dr. Craig admitted in a staff meeting her death was a direct result of a surgical mistake he made.
SEASON 4 (1985-86) 53rd Place, 13.8 Rating
Image result for st. elsewhere bonnie bartlettAfter shedding 5 contract cast members the previous season, St. Elsewhere shed another opening billed star and dismissed Cynthia Sikes as Dr. Annie Cavanero unceremoniously, with her last appearance being checking in at the nurse's station in Season 3 (a similar fate to Birney and Bailey in Season 1).  St. Elsewhere hit its ratings peak this season with just as much rife tragedy dominating the tone of the show.  Dr. Craig's only son, Stephen, died in a road accident early on, leaving Mark and Ellen to raise his surviving daughter, Barbara and ripping their marriage apart.  Self-proclaimed playboy Dr. Bobby Caldwell not only found himself embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal, but received a nasty delivery of karma when a spurned lover viciously slashed his face in November.  To add insult to his wounds, he discovered he contracted AIDS and exited the series.
The series, now in its fourth season, hit its ratings peak, thanks to a multiple-episode arc of episodes under the theme "Time Heals."  As the hospital struggled with closure, it also coincided with its 50th anniversary of its founding and several cast members' entrances and life changing events were explored.  The episodes were critically acclaimed, being labeled some of the best episodes in television history by TV Guide. 
SEASON 5 (1986-87) 53rd Place, 13.4 Rating
Image result for st. elsewhere purgatoryNow faced with a sparse roster, St. Elsewhere ramped up its roster with fresh life.  After earning an Emmy for her tear-jerking delivery as grief stricken mother Ellen Craig, Bonnie Bartlett was upgraded to contract status after 4 recurring seasons.  Cindy Pickett's delivery as nurse turned resident Dr. Carol Novino the prior season also earned her an upgrade, and Bruce Greenwood arrived as another playboy, Dr. Seth Griffin.  The tone of Season 5 lightened up considerably with less tragedy, more medicine.  The drama surrounding the medical staff's lives became the central focus vs. plot-driven twists.
Another triple-episode titled "After Life" centered on Dr. Wayne Fiscus, who is shot and rendered comatose.  He visits heaven, hell and purgatory, all the while meeting God, clad in an identical look to Howie Mandel.  The season closed the hospital, which ultimately found a wrecking ball smashing into the building with Dr. Auschlander inside. 
SEASON 6 (1987-88) 47th Place, 13.2 Rating
Image result for st. elsewhere mtm catThe final season of St. Elsewhere reopened the hospital under corporate management, also leading to the exit of Dr. Westphall.  In a controversial exit, Ed Flanders' character, disgusted at the corporate wranglings, storms out, but not before mooning the audience and stating "You can kiss my ass."  The roster again bloated, as recurring characters such as nurse Lucy Papandrao (Jennifer Savidge), Dr. Jacqueline Wade (Sagan Lewis) and Dr. Paulette Kiem (France Nguyen) all received contract upgrades.  To fill the void as chief of staff, Dr. John Gideon (Ronny Cox) rounded out the cast.  Seeing the writing on the wall as this would likely be the series' last season, writers went for broke and wrapped up St. Elsewhere in a heartfelt fashion.  Two major characters died, several moved on from the hospital, and the final moments of the series again went for critical gold, depicting the entire series was a figment of an autistic child's imagination via a snowglobe.  Leaving one last macabre shock for the audience, the closing credits killed off the MTM kitten!
Given the series' serialized format, syndication has been sparse in recent years, though it has traipsed local stations and several cable outlets such as TV Land and Bravo over the years.  Give the online platforms time, as someone is bound to snag this critical jewel and bring the magic to life for younger viewers again.

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