There are few things that are a greater waste of time than watching TV. I watch a lot of TV anyway.
I really don’t know why I watch TV as much as I do. Usually, I find that I watch TV sort of by accident. TV is just sort of there, mainly as background noise. At a certain point, something on the TV will divert my attention for a moment, perhaps as I am pausing to reflect on a passage I’ve just read in a book or while I’m folding laundry or eating my dinner. Well, the next thing I know, I’m sitting in my easy chair and the 10 p.m. news is coming on and I realize I haven’t moved in three hours. I almost always feel mildly disgusted at having been so easily lured into watching a series of silly sit-coms or ludicrous hospital/crime dramas.
Now that I am no longer in the newspaper business, I’ve given some deep thought about exploring other writing genres, including TV writing. Inspired by shows like “E.R.’’ and “Grey’s Anatomy,’’ I have come up with a twist on the genre that I believe could be a very successful show.
My idea is to have a show about a Bordello where the main characters routinely slip off into a store room or closet and practice medicine. What do you think?
Well, I was watching one of those hospital dramas last night when, much to my surprise, I detected something truly literate in the script. In these instances, the pleasure is always enhanced by having found it in a place you least expect it.
But sure enough, as Thursday’s episode of “E.R.’’ came on, I found myself exposed to what many literary critics consider the greatest of the epic poems - The Book of Job.
I’ll try to reconstruct the scene, as best I can recall it.
The opening scene follows one of the doctors, Abby, as he arrives for her shift at County Hospital in Chicago. The scene is constructed in such as way to convey a sense of hopelessness on Abby’s part. Regular viewers know that Abby is one of the original characters on the show, which is in its final season. Abby started out as a nurse on the show, but is now a doctor. (In TV land, you can complete medical school between seasons, of course). A recovering alcoholic, Abby seems to be very disillusioned with life as an emergency room doctor, where she is daily exposed to the carnage normally associated with a hospital emergency room in a big, crime-ridden city.
Abby looks worn and world-weary as she arrives in the chaotic emergency room. The narrator quotes Job as Abby wanders, zombie-like, into the ER. At first, I do not recognize the passage because, I suspect, it is read from a contemporary translation that I do not use - most likely, “The Message’’ by Eugene H. Peterson. But when the narrator says “what I've dreaded most has happened. My repose is shattered, my peace destroyed. No rest for me, ever—death has invaded life,’’ I know that he is quoting the Book of Job.
Now, if I had been the writer of that show, I believe I would have stayed with the King James Version, which is almost always the most poetic of the translations, although not always the easiest to understand.
But that’s a minor criticism.
The narration ends and we watch Abby as she goes through what we find out is her final shift at the hospital. She is moving to Boston to be with her young son and doctor/husband. Abby seems ambivalent about her impending departure. On one hand, you sense she is disillusioned by the grim realities of her job. On the other hand, you sense her affection and admiration for the other doctors and nurses. Over the course of the hour, Abby comes to the defense of a stressed-out young nurse, saves a guilt-ridden teen from suicide and provides encouragement to another weary doctor. And somehow, a flicker of hope seems to ignite in Abby.
At the end, Abby - box of personal effects in tow - says her quick goodbyes and heads out to the street, where her husband and child are waiting to greet her.
The narrator picks up, again quoting the Book of Job, with the series of rhetorical questions that God offers Job as a response to his complaints and accusations.
It was, I felt, a beautiful, thoughtful, literate handling of the story.
And it was on a TV show.