Heartstoppers

Television

In the week that Brian Walden in Walden on Villains (BBC2, Friday) called Hitler "the hole in the heart of the democratic process", two heroes left voids in the hearts of television drama. ER and NYPD Blue both lost their stars.

The harder gap to fill may have been created by George Clooney's departure from ER (Sky 1, Thursday; Channel 4 viewers will catch up in a month), since by its standards the series is suffering a lousy season and has increasingly relied on Clooney's lazy charisma. Initially the cleverness of ER's writers had been to use Clooney's beauty against him, to push the dreamboat in the direction of sex addiction. The pilot episode five years ago had his girlfriend Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) wheeled in unconscious from a suicide attempt committed in reaction to his infidelity. Two years later, he carried another comatose date into the emergency room, this one a cokehead whose name he had failed to register.

After this turning point, Ross went into therapy and monogamy and then won back Hathaway. The debugging of his sexuality, however, left his character overly virtuous, a paediatrician with only the innocent, impetuous vices of the children he cared for.

A literal low point was reached when the big-screen Batman rescued a boy trapped in a submerged drain. Metaphorically, however, ER plumbed the depths this week and last in episodes that finally freed Clooney for a full-time career in cinema. Ross had to resign because he had stolen an unauthorised painkiller to speed the death of a terminal little Ricky - more of what Mark Greene called Ross's "cowboy crap". Subliminally, the message given to viewers was that ER was an ensemble show and Ross's star-turn heroics no longer had any place in it. That in reality the producers would have loved to have kept Clooney on may explain the indistinct and undistinguished plotting.

The two-parter began with Ross asleep on his sofa with a stethoscope by his side and incidental music plucking heavily on available heart strings, while upstairs Ricky lay a'dying. It ended with him, stethoscope tossed aside, rebonding with his pal Greene in a park. Along the way we had the false cliffhangers of a road crash (allowing us to think Ross was being killed off), a police investigation into Ricky's euthanasia and the possibility that Hathaway would join Ross for his new life in airy Portland. Unpromising plot lines swamped in to fill the imminent vacuum: Carter had sex with his intern (shamingly, the writers turned Lucy into a Lewinsky and put her in thongs); the evil Romano took over as acting ER head; and Jeannie contracted hepatitis C ("and all this time I'm worried about my HIV"). But nothing could disguise the resemblance of this write-out to other Ross-bucks-the-system episodes, or the clumsy way in which he was stripped of his status as hero and repainted as an adolescent narcissist.

In contrast to ER, NYPD Blue, rebounding from a poor last year, was reinvigorated by the dilemma of how to dispose of its favourite detective, Bobby Simone. Nothing became Jimmy Smits' role like his leaving of it. After he had taken over from David Caruso at the beginning of season two and been forced initially to act scripts written for his predecessor, Smits had two so-what histories grafted on to him, namely that he was a widower and that he kept pigeons. Entrusted with saving both his partner Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and his future wife Diane Russell (Kim Delaney) from alcoholism, Simone was left for three years without a vice to call his own.

All came good in this terminal story arc, however, which avoided the obvious at every turn - starting with his means of death: when a TV cop dies, you expect him to be slain by a bullet not, as in this case, by heart disease. With the confidence of a show that takes pride in its own history, Wednesday's episode (Channel 4) featured a compilation of Simone's finest moments. Simone's first wife was named as Mary, Diane's miscarried baby was incarnated as a boy, and, in a sequence of risky hallucinatory sequences, Simone's pigeon-keeping neighbour became God preparing him for a Catholic death. Smits was allowed, as it were, to act his heart out.

The finale began with his colleagues' false jollity at what the perennially inept Medavoy called Bobby's "grand departure" from the hospital after his transplant. But for once, as infection overtook, Sipowicz's sour pessimism was allowed to triumph over American television's easy optimism. In the corridors, two doctors, in an equivalent of the nice cop/nasty cop routine, argued over the increasingly officious attempts to keep Simone alive. Down at the precinct, tempers frayed. Apologies were accepted; "I understand" became a catchphrase. In the end, a series that delights in contrasting the brutality of the squad's modus operandi with America's passion for institutional euphemism met mortality square in the eye. Bobby's dying may well be the most medically explained and spiritually explored television death ever. Painful to watch, hard to get out of your head, it was an extended ya-boo-and-sucks to ER's increasingly formulaic skirmishes with the Reaper.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world