Case Study 40: Emergency! Episode 28–“Honest”

Original Airdate: February 17th, 1973 on NBC

Jack Webb was to 1970s NBC procedurals what Paul Henning was to 1960s CBS sitcoms, except unlike Henning, Webb got his start in front of the camera. He was the perfect straight arrow for the hard-boiled realism of the 1950s version of Dragnet, which had originally been a big hit on radio. The franchise went dormant for much of the 60s, but it was brought back in a big way in 1967 in response to a growing appetite among reactionary types for a law & order approach to hippies and free love. It was the start of a successful stretch for Webb’s production company, Mark VII Limited. Dragnet begat a spinoff in the form of Adam-12 and Adam-12 apparently exhausted the potential of police procedurals for Mark VII, which resulted in a new spinoff, the medical procedural Emergency! And that’s the last time I’m using that over-enthusiastic exclamation point.

Strengths

  • Realism. One of the most exciting things that a procedural can offer viewers is a peek inside something they wouldn’t otherwise get to see–a homicide investigation, open-heart surgery, a contentious lawsuit. If the procedural is more realistic, it seems more authentic, and that authenticity is satisfying for the viewer. This was behind the success of Dragnet and it’s what made Law & Order an unstoppable franchise that’s existed for decades. As ER grew away from realism, it got less satisfying (helicopter crashes, anyone?) This doesn’t mean that realism is the only way to have success with a procedural–NCIS has remained massively popular and it’s more characteristic of an action thriller than a traditional police procedural. It’s not that it failed to be realistic–it offers different pleasures. But Emergency is banking on a realistic depiction of the lives of paramedics and firefighters, and delivers an experience with an air of authenticity. I’ve never been a firefighter or a paramedic, so I can only offer so many assurances, but I was convinced and I expect the average viewer outside those professions would be as well.

Weaknesses

  • Didactic, meaningless approach to its theme. The fact that the title of the episode clunkily announces the theme of the program bodes ill for things to come. You see, our hero John Gage (Randolph Mantooth) becomes fixated on the idea that human misery would be alleviated if only we could all be perfectly honest all the time. Get ready for a pointless dimestore interpretation of virtue ethics! Each and every situation addressed by the paramedics in this episode has an obvious, lampshaded connection to honesty, though some of those connections are pretty tenuous and there’s never a probing or meaningful exploration of any of the examples that are thrown at us. Gage makes his honesty vow in the cold open when paramedics respond to the site of a kitchen gas explosion. The wife (Beverly Sanders, Scooby Doo! Curse Of The Lake Monster) in a newlywed couple had left the gas on before having a 20-minute argument with her husband (Michael Lerner, 1998’s Godzilla) about his cigars. You see, back when they were dating she pretended to like his stinky cigars but it turns out she doesn’t really like them. The argument culminated in him spitefully lighting a cigar, blowing the damn house to kingdom come. The moral that Gage takes away from this is not that the husband is an asshole but rather that the wife should have been honest about the cigars from day one. Maybe Gage is one of those Ayn Rand enthusiasts who don’t see the downside to “brutal honesty”–where being “honest” is more important than not being a jerkass–because he’s not persuaded about the downsides when he sees Dr. Morton (Ron Pinkard) bluntly tells worried mother Patricia Epps (Anne Whitfield, White Christmas) about her son’s grim prognosis, reducing her to a heap of quivering Jell-O. But it turns out Ms. Epps was the dishonest one all along–in a twist that the writers on House would be proud of, it turns out that she doomed her son by not telling doctors about medicines she had already tried giving her son at home. Dishonesty! Or, you know, just getting flustered and confused in the wake of a medical emergency, or something. But it’s so fun to blame women for everything! Also coming in for the blame is Cheryl Olmstead (Ondine Vaughn, Carola), a tenant who didn’t tell her landlady that the landlady’s 13 year old son likes to take the car for joyrides. Sure, this is a reasonable, if somewhat obvious, example of the negative consequences of dishonesty, as Gage points out later in a conversation with his colleague Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe)…but DeSoto’s rebuttal about the negative consequences of honesty doesn’t make any damn sense at all. He refers back to another case they responded to where some idiot tried to do a somersault off the roof of a hotel into the pool and broke his neck. Somehow, this is because his girlfriend (Hilda Wynn, A Woman For All Men) told him the truth by telling him that he was a “phony.” My point here is that many of these supposedly revealing vignettes about the value of honesty are neither meaningful nor very interesting, and while the show is very ham-fisted about pointing out how every stupid thing in these people’s lives revolves around the honesty of others it all feels hollow.
  • Boring. You’d think a show called Emergency would be suspenseful and action-packed, but some of these sequences drag on forever. Maybe I’m spoiled by today’s world of quick cuts and short scenes, but it seems like an eternity when the paramedics spend 7 minutes fishing dumbass out of the pool, especially since there’s no payoff other than a fatuous moral about the dangers of being honest with fragile male egos. And apparently the writers have never heard of the drawbacks of “shoe leather” in a screenplay–ie, when you spend valuable screen time showing people going to and from a location. There are so many shots of emergency vehicles navigating the streets of Los Angeles that I began to think I was playing Grand Theft Auto V, except then I’d be entertained. Perhaps if the scenes were tighter we’d have more time to develop one of our 17 pointless storylines.

Motivation: Gage’s pseudo-philosophical ponderings may be boring as hell, but at least he’s trying to search for knowledge.

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. There’s something fascinating about watching professionals try to save a life, and it’s always interesting to see the events that led to medical mayhem reconstructed, but Emergency only manages to embrace its virtues in spite of its ponderous script.

NEXT TIME: Is there a children’s television franchise I’ve somehow managed to overlook? Yes. Yes there is. Tune in next time for Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles!

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Case Study 40: Emergency! Episode 28–“Honest”