Angela Bassett Leads ER's Final Season (2008-9)
An earlier installment of Advanced TV Herstory took us back to the first few seasons of the long-running medical drama, ER. Specifically, we reviewed the characters of Nurse Carol Hathaway and Doctor Susan Lewis. Appropriately, we tipped our podcast hat to actresses Julianna Margulies and Sherry Stringfield for anchoring the show with two strong, competent portrayals.
Fast forward a dozen years and viewers were still tuning in to the drama inside County General every Thursday night. Nearly all the faces of the nurses, doctors and staff had changed. In that final season, the 15th, which aired in 2008-9, modern healthcare delivery challenges were decidedly more complex than they’d been in 1994.
This segment of Advanced TV Herstory celebrates the producers’ decision to ride out the series with the incredibly talented Angela Bassett at the helm as Dr. Cate Banfield. She made the 15th season well worth watching. Bassett is an actress who runs away with a role – usually on the big screen – so the pleasure was all ours to see her artistry, each week – portraying a character as complex, tightly wired and professional – well, as we think Angela Bassett might be in real life.
We’ll probe her character’s personal life, which unfortunately comes to affect her professional performance. And we’ll review how the other lead characters complemented the aura she carried.
By this last season, we had come to know the doctor/nurse relationship between John Stamos’ and Linda Cardellini’s characters. The talented Parminder Nagra as Dr. Neela Rasgotra lived the career of the high achieving foreign-born, U.S. trained physician who expected a lot of herself and others.
By the 15th season, some pretty big names had worn ER scrubs, lab coats or hospital gowns. Early on it was Margulies and George Clooney. In those middle seasons William H. Macy, Kellie Martin, Gloria Reuben, Sara Gilbert, Mariska Hargitay and Sally Field carried short and long term story arcs.
The 15th season was peppered with cameo appearances and pop ups from some of the most beloved characters of the past, an approach that I think was particularly effective in celebrating the show’s longevity and tying up these final episodes.
Behind the camera, a few episodes were directed by women, namely Lesli Linka Glatter (who went on to become the force behind Homeland) and Mimi Leder. Women writers in the last season include Lisa Zwerling, Janine Sherman Barrois, Shannon Goss, and Karen Maser.
With a keen emphasis on the turnover of interns and the ER’s role as a teaching unit, a new batch of medical students and doctors in training are introduced in the first few episodes, as is the newly appointed Chief of Emergency Medicine, Dr. Cate Banfield.
Banfield’s demeanor was all-work. Dr. Archie Morris, played by Scott Grimes, served up a little levity. Unlike Dr. Kerry Weaver, Bassett’s Banfield had a more decisive, accountable presence on the floor from Day One. That could have been a factor of age and experience. It could have been that writers had consistently presented characters of color as fairly serious and driven, with high expectations of themselves. This goes all the way back to the first few seasons as we watched Dr. Peter Benton strategize about his opportunities for advancement and acceptance.
So after the first few episodes, you see Bassett as Banfield getting a chance to shine in the weekly realm of TV, versus the concentrated performances she’s brought us on the big screen. For instance, in 1994 for her portrayal of Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It Bassett won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. Her work is recognized with nominations and awards from a host of organizations that promote the diversity. For her role as Dr. Cate Banfield, Bassett won an Image Award and was nominated for a BET Award as best actress.
If you’re not a stickler for watching a series in chronological order, buy ER Season 15 on DVD. The season was masterfully constructed and the series finale, which was much anticipated in the spring of 2009, is a two-hour, with a one hour retrospective. Plus you get Bassett in 21 of those episodes… at her best.
Dr. Cate Banfield, tense, smart and her team respects her. How did she end up working in this ER?
That question gets answered in an excellent, must-see episode entitled Heal Thyself. It’s as well-written and directed as it is acted. Bits of audio barely do it justice, but there’s excellent perspective – a mother’s perspective - embedded in the storyline.
And the complexity of the storyline was where the writers shone most brightly. Shortly in to the start of the story, when Dr. Banfield, still an unknown to the viewer had an exchange with her husband, then bolted for a run along Lake Michigan.
From that point, flashbacks intersperse with her day.
And while burning up the running path along the lake, Banfield joined others in the rescue of a young girl who had just fallen in to the lake. It was a cold raw day. Banfield went into hero mode – by no, not jumping in to save her, but rather working on her in the ambulance that sped to County General.
She flashed back some number of years – the difference is made mainly in her hair and that she effusively smiled. The first is a scene that included her then-five year old son, Daryl.
Competent, nerves of steel. We know from the interactions of the Banfields that they are alone, no children. These flashback scenes provided the vital background for the loyal viewer to finally understand her intensity.
You be the mom
As adults, we like to think of ourselves as having learned from mistakes. Dr. Banfield relived the actions and inactions which she led… as her son’s mother and as an emergency medicine physician… on this day when confronted with this patient, a young girl so close to death.
We learn in this episode that she had previously been a doctor at the hospital affiliated with the University of Southern California. As the mother of a patient at County General, she experienced first-hand limited, strained or non-existent resources to diagnose the cause of her son’s present state.
It feels like his parents had had Daryl Banfield’s full work-up at another hospital. This wasn’t a case of County General’s negligence. Dr. Mark Greene, played in a cameo appearance by Anthony Edwards, was the doctor assigned to the Banfield boy. Greene was battling cancer and in this scene, went head to head with Bassett as Dr. Mama Grizzley.
Dr. Banfield led the young girl’s case with the whole flashback guiding her actions and words. Viewers learn that young Daryl Banfield had a stroke caused by acute leukemia, undiagnosed even though he had been sent through a battery of tests. Had she assumed that other physicians were as competent as she? Regardless of who was to blame for Daryl’s deteriorating condition that day in County General’s Trauma Room Dr. Banfield carried the lesson.
The two incidents collided in Dr. Banfield’s heart and in her head. This beautifully told story revealed her dignity, the weight her heart held every day and why excellence is a hallmark of her professional reputation. And Dr. Mark Greene helped her see that in herself, in his gentle, mortal way.
Run down the list in your head of accomplished dramatic actresses – say ranging in age from 40 to 55 – who could have nailed this performance, this character, as well as Angela Bassett did?
Bassett pulled off complexity and calm, self-discipline and sacrifice in a role that normally would be reserved for a brooding man.
But for a mother who is also an accomplished physician to have been so blind to her son’s serious condition – who wouldn’t live with a head and heart full of second guessing? How do you regain your own confidence?
Aside from Dr. Mark Greene, who we grew to respect and love over his 182 episodes, Bassett as Banfield was the most nuanced character on the show. These flashback sequences in a single story got us inside her head. Bassett’s performances in 21 episodes – remember the series featured nearly 5,000 performers – is a reminder why every once in a while, an Oscar nominee who “stoops” to do TV will find a role that is worthy of her talent.
Here’s how Banfield revealed some of her most private details to colleague Dr. Archie Morris. Remember how earlier in this installment I described Dr. Morris as the resident cut-up. He was a bit of a smarty pants, but he also was genuine. Played by Scott Grimes, Dr. Morris often wore his feelings on his sleeve. The final gesture of this scene has Dr. Banfield pulling the girl’s stuffed animal which she’d retrieved from the scene at the lake and handing it to Morris.
This entire episode also reminds us that we don’t know everything about the people we work with or are even close to knowing it all. In this age of Instagram and Facebook, not everyone wants to share every detail – happy or sad – in order to live for the reaction of others. And that in this lifetime, we may be fortunate to hold all sorts of titles, spouse, sibling, child, parent, grandchild or grandparent. With those titles may come sacrifice and responsibility within the family unit, above and beyond that which is currently on our plates. Our hearts tell us these challenges are part of our purpose. And when that person no longer needs us, that relationship is a changed one. In some instances, to Dr. Banfield’s point, the English language hasn’t necessarily assigned a word for that new status.
This is a subtle theme through women’s roles in TV, manifesting perhaps more frequently even in daytime dramas than on prime time. Advanced TV Herstory puts Angela Bassett’s performance at the top of the list for bringing so much of herself to this complex, wonderful character.
Ummm Angela. Umm, Ms. Bassett? More please.
Advanced TV Herstory thanks you for sticking with us through all the tough medicine included in this segment. Audio from Season 15, episode 7 entitled Heal Thyself of ER was pulled from the DVD, which you should buy… STAT.
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Advanced TV Herstory is nearing its first anniversary. It’s been a terrific ride, so thanks for listening and all your encouragement! I’m your writer, researcher, producer and host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.