Early ER's Lewis & Hathaway
Advanced TV Herstory’s email inbox received a message of joy, actually a message from Joy, from Ottawa, who shares our enthusiasm for women and television. She wrote,
I found your podcast by fluke when searching for material on the late Patty Duke. I m really enjoying other episodes, particularly the MTM ones.
Joy shared a terrific list of ideas for future installments, including the women of E.R. – specifically Kerry Weaver, Susan Lewis and Abby Lockhart. Joy – this one and the next one and maybe even one more – they’re for you. And I promise to work on the other story ideas you presented. Thank you for your enthusiasm and your salutation of “keep on podcasting!” You know it! I will!
In 1994, a medical drama appeared on the horizon that would change TV storytelling. This was no Marcus Welby or Medical Center. E.R.’s first three episodes demonstrated consistent innovation in blending the personal lives of medical professionals with the workplace challenges – often in exhaustive detail. Those three episodes would lay the foundation for 15 seasons of remarkable TV.
This installment of Advanced TV Herstory scrolls all the way back in E.R. archives to the first two seasons. When it all began, viewers followed the realistic story arcs of two strong women characters, Dr. Susan Lewis played by Sherry Stringfield and Nurse Carol Hathaway played by Julianna Margulies. Amid a growing cast, these two held their own to deliver memorable performances and give us all insight into the lives of women in the medical profession in the mid 90s.
In Dr. Lewis, we’ll get to see the work/life balance question plunked squarely, albeit unexpectedly, into the lap of a smart, articulate, mostly brave doctor. With the benefit of 20 years of herstory, we’ll grab some audio that shows just how hard she worked and how her competitive peers treated her.
Nurse Hathaway’s story was both reflective and aspirational. She dated men of all stripes and character, but none met her expectations. Those expectations, of what she wants in life and what she feels she can contribute, impact her career path.
Excellent and well-written storytelling – that was the hallmark of E.R. Let’s review a bit what else went into E.R. that made it different.
Clearly there was influence of two veteran writers and producers, who just happened to be women. Lydia Woodward and Carol Flint had teamed up in prior series, most notably, China Beach and St. Elsewhere. Woodward would go on to become the showrunner. Woodward and Flint would also be joined by directors Lesli Linka Glatter (a genius behind the series Homeland) and Mimi Leder.
I have to believe their strength and confident presence, behind the scenes, contributed to noticeable elements like paramedic crews that consistently featured a woman, usually, providing the patient details as they brought said patient in on the gurney.
Emily Wagner played Medic Doris Pickman in 160 episodes. Here’s how she earned her paycheck…
Every once in a while, it was a team of women – physicians, nurses and technicians, working a trauma room. There wasn’t much sugar coating of women in any of these professions. In a realistic fashion, women characters provided constructive feedback, gave orders and led teams, reminding us that medicine is a profession where competence is paramount.
And, it should be noted that with nearly 5000 cast members appearing over the 15 seasons, diversity was a high priority. Casting was colorblind wherever possible.
E.R. delivered a new approach to medical drama storytelling, putting the viewer squarely in the middle of the action with mobile camera units that traveled alongside carts, viewed patients from overhead or peered through windows at worried family members. With rapid dialogue and fast-paced scripts, each episode covered a lot of ground. Some would say there’s an adrenaline factor to hospital jobs. E.R. depicted that force pumping for both genders.
On to our two early series characters. In the early 90s, Sherry Stringfield’s career was on the upswing. Fresh out of college she landed on CBS soap, The Guiding Light. She was an original cast member of NYPD Blue, but left the show early in its run. Her time on E.R. was relatively brief, as she left in the third season to slow her life down. She returned to her Dr. Susan Lewis character in later seasons, thus appearing in 142 episodes.
E.R. closed its doors in 2009. Stringfield spoke at a 2007 National Organization for Women (NOW) Conference and the timeless topic of women roles in TV and film and how she’s had to navigate her career in pursuit of quality opportunities.
In Season One we see Dr. Susan Lewis as capable, though in many scenes she is not as active as Dr. Mark Greene. The fact that Dr. Greene is the Attending Resident may have something to do with that, but there are many scenes where she is a passive or non-active person in the scene. And then there are scenes where a male physician is actively tending the patient and she is looking over his shoulder or at his side. Sometimes she recommends a different course of action that what he is embarking on, sometimes she tells him, particularly Dr. Greene, that he has missed something.
You get the sense she is competent and still finding her way in a field dominated by men.
By the mid-90s, there was an emerging understanding that western style medicine wasn’t always the most effective way to treat conditions. Dr. Lewis held that interest in many story lines, with her either advocating for less invasive approaches, more humane treatments or at the minimum, extending the observation period a bit longer in order to not proceed unnecessarily, in haste.
Two examples worth hearing. First, a heart patient who presented with a host of symptoms indicating an impending heart attack. Dr. Lewis treated first with a round of drug therapy and asked for the cardiologist on call to see him in the ER. Time passed and ultimately, the cardiologist arrived, yelling at her in front of others that she didn’t take proper action. Dr. Morgenstern, the Chief Resident at the time, brought the question of her actions to a teaching session.
SS teaching session
Medicine, law, engineering, software development – this setting could have been in any field. A smart woman saw the value in a different approach and defended it. She had just enough support to take the stage to make her case in a way that demonstrated the value of her decisions. And in this case, she deserved credit for a favorable outcome.
But she didn’t get it.
We also see the touch of writers Lydia Woodward and Carol Flint when it comes to the compassionate stories that are part and parcel with emergency room work. Dr. Susan Lewis and Nurse Carol Hathaway, in an early episode, manage symptoms of an older woman who has end stage leukemia, which she’s chosen not to aggressively treat. They encourage her to at least get a blood transfusion.
As she is leaving their care, she helps reveal the identity of an Alzheimer’s Jane Doe who has also been in the unit all day. In this episode, Rosemary Clooney is the big name cameo, who also happens to be the aunt of George Clooney who plays the cad Dr. Doug Ross.
SS JM RClooney
Dr. Lewis doesn’t fit in very well with this ER. The situation grows worse when her sister Chloe appears on her doorstep, very pregnant and in need of a lot of support. Lewis aids her sister through the delivery of niece Susie and while the baby is just months old, sister Chloe abandons her.
Stretching over nearly an entire season, Dr. Lewis struggled with unexpected single parenthood, pondered adoption, questioned her life plan and managed her anger and disappointment with her sister.
It came to a head when sister Chloe returned with the baby’s father and they resumed custody of Susie.
Heartwrenching life/balance, but it’s a story that needs telling every once in a while. Ultimately Dr. Lewis left the hospital, but returned five seasons later as an attending physician. In her second term, which lasted four seasons, she further developed her voice but still found herself at odds with Dr. Kerry Weaver. Her final departure from Cook County General Hospital was prompted by Weaver’s decision to award a tenured resident position to Dr. John Carter, not Lewis. Younger than Lewis by a few years, Carter’s career is launched in the first season too.
From Season 2, when Dr. Weaver is introduced, you get the sense she doesn’t like Dr. Lewis. She’s judgmental, but will offer an occasional compliment. Does Weaver sense competition? Is this an Alpha Woman – there can only be one of us – situation? They both seem competent but at least in the early seasons, Dr. Lewis was the one you’d like to go have a margarita with.
Future installments of Advanced TV Herstory will profile other strong women characters of E.R.. With 15 seasons to cover, there were many and Dr. Kerry Weaver, played by Laura Innes is one of them.
Just as Lewis opened storylines about less invasive therapies and alternative medicine, Weaver represented diversity by having a visible disability – which we learn over time is caused by congenital hip dysplasia.
So in Season 2, we were got a deeper look at Lewis and Weaver as physicians. In this clip, Weaver shows compassion and underscores the value of listening and paying attention to clues in the case of a young girl brought in suffering seizures.
Weaver ep girl
We like Kerry Weaver, but not much. Does she have an edge because her disability has forced her to be more aggressive? Both Lewis and Weaver were smart, hard working doctors, but there was a difference in their motivation. In this clip, Weaver follows up with the epileptic patient.
Weaver ep 2
As a viewer, sometimes it was a relief to have the camera leave their tussle and put us in the situation with Carol Hathaway, another talented hardworking woman who was a well-liked nurse in the ER.
In the first three episodes, we see Hathaway as a competent team player. There are hints that she’d had a relationship with Dr. Doug Ross. Clooney defines the title “cad” in his entire time as Doug Ross. At the end of a shift, Hathaway leaves work. Hours later a medic team is bringing her in as an overdose. The first three episodes build up and recover from her suicide attempt and the team’s reaction. E.R.’s risk taking and innovation was revealed.
Great acting, great writing. Her incident and return opened up chances for dialogue about life, second chances, protecting yourself from others and not settling for something or someone who doesn’t meet your expectations.
Margulies proved her acting chops as Carol. She delivered the drama and there was probably a period of time where we all thought Carol Hathaway would define Margulies as an actress. Margulies left the show in Season 6 – 2000 and in 2009 premiered in the title role of the acclaimed TV drama, The Good Wife.
In her six seasons, Nurse Carol Hathaway lived a complicated life to the fullest. She showed heart, instincts and excellent nursing skills. In 9 episodes of Season Two, future CSI star Jorja Fox (who would play Sara Seidel) appeared as Dr. Maggie Doyle – an intern.
We learn that Doyle is two years younger than Hathaway and that they attended the same high school and community college. In a story line where they are both called upon to treat a patient who turned out to be their high school chemistry teacher, we learn that Hathaway was a student of great potential – in fact, the chem teacher mistook her for being a physician.
Doyle avoided duty with the chem teacher, revealing that she failed his class twice.
Hathaway, who has a hard time finding stability in her personal life, begins to wonder if her talents in medicine are wasted in nursing.
Who hasn’t been in the position of assisting someone who has chosen a different career path but likely isn’t as smart as you are? Those experiences can either be a wake up call for reflection or lead to bitterness – glass half empty, glass half full.
Fortunately for Hathaway, Doyle was more interested in getting along with everybody. She offered tips about the pre-med program at Malcolm X Community College.
Over the next several seasons, we’d follow Nurse Hathaway as she decided against becoming a doctor, met and parted with a host of men who didn’t live up to the bar Doug Ross set as her soulmate. The later seasons were different from the first two seasons as Margulies’ character’s emphasis went from work challenges to the more serial soap opera wandering of her personal life.
One might say that all the women characters got a shot at depicting the work/life balance in some fashion – the challenge of squeezing into one day caring for all these patients as well as caring for a loved one – or caring for themselves.
In its 15 years, the show bagged 23 Emmys amid 124 nominations. Margulies won a Best Supporting Actress Emmy in 1995 and numerous Screen Actors Guild and Viewers for Quality Television Awards.
331 episodes - the story lines take viewers beyond the walls of the ER and the apartments of the main characters. Advanced TV Herstory will profile characters who appeared in many episodes, like Kerry Weaver, Abby Lockhart, played by Maura Tierney and Alex Kingston’s Elizabeth Corday. We’ll also find the gem moments of long-serving supporting role actresses like Yvette Feldman as nurse Haleh Adams and Laura Cheron as Chuny Marquez. And maybe tip our hat to Frances Sternhagen, who played Dr. Carter’s mother, Angela Bassett who capably gave us Dr. Cate Banfield, Gloria Reuben’s Jeanie Boulet, Sally Field as Dr. Lockhart’s mother and Mariska Hargitay as Cynthia Hooper.
There’s so much more to the incomparable TV series E.R. than heartthrobs George Clooney and Noah Wyle. Just ask Advanced TV Herstory….
Thanks for listening to this installment, which was on the long list of topic ideas but rose to the top as a result of Joy’s suggestion. Clips in this installment are from the E.R. Season 3 episodes 3 and 4 and Season 2 episode 6 “Days Like This.” The clip of the NOW speech that Stringfield gave in 2007 is found on YouTube.
Some of the 331 episodes are found online through paysites and on YouTube. All 15 seasons are available on DVD – a good investment I’d say as I think the show has aged well.
Find this script and past podcast scripts on my website Cynthiabemisabrams.com. Be like Joy and send your ideas for future segments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Leave comments or rate the podcast at iTunes or our hosting site libsyn. We’re on Twitter – with a handle of at TVHerstory as well as Facebook.
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