I remember E.R. as a zeitgeist show, a conceit that strikes me as odd since I never watched it. Hospital procedurals were all the rage in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, but there was just something so off-putting about the entire concept to me. I hate spending time in real hospitals, so why would I want to spend an hour each week in a fictitious one? The closest I ever got to E.R. was during my internship at Warner Bros, where the E.R. exterior set occupies a permanent place on the backlot.
However, it’s not hard to see why other people would find this setting dramatic. Hospitals are where people go to be born, die and everything in-between. Suspense is the dominant tone of the day, followed by chaos. It makes sense that so many television shows have mined the field of medicine for inspiration.
After the success of 1994’s breakout hit, PULP FICTION, it’s a little perplexing to see director Quentin Tarantino segue into television. This guy practically lit the world of cinema on fire with his last feature, so why would his next move be a journeyman directing gig on a weekly episodic? To me, it makes a weird sort of sense. Tarantino has always been associated with pop culture and genre-fare, and it’s entirely possible that he was a huge fan of the show and jumped at the opportunity to contribute to it.
E.R. is not very different from other serials of its ilk, in that it is essentially a soap opera set in a high-stress workplace. Tarantino’s episode, “MOTHERHOOD”, serves as the penultimate episode of the first season, so naturally the characters’ stakes are running high. “MOTHERHOOD” takes place, appropriately, on Mother’s Day, so everyone is dealing with maternal nature in some way. Babies are born, mothers die, futures are considered. George Clooney rose to fame during his tenure on ER, and he’s easily the most watchable thing about the show. Tarantino gets his first chance to work with his future FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996) co-star here, but the limitations of the episodic format means that he has to stay firmly within showrunner John Wells’ boundaries. Other actors of note are Noah Wyle as the indecisive, wide-eyed John Carter and a cameo by Tarantino’s then-girlfriend Kathy Lee Griffin (who also pops up in a cameo in Tarantino’s PULP FICTION).
By the nature of the television medium, where the showrunner– not the director– has final say on the overall direction of the production, Tarantino eschews his recurring collaborators for E.R.’s sanctioned department heads. He also has to forego his dynamic visual style and adapt his aesthetic to E.R.’s pre-defined look. Thankfully, the style of E.R. is well within Tarantino’s wheelhouse, with a gritty, handheld sensibility. Tarantino makes extensive use of a Steadicam rig for long, complicated tracking shots, but I can’t tell if that is his own design or a regular technique on the show.
Granted, you don’t sign Tarantino to direct an episode of your TV show without allowing him to sprinkle in some of his signature touches. The dialogue is witty, laced with verbose profanity (albeit tamed by primetime TV standards), abundant references to pop culture and movies, and the inclusion of unexpected source music like hip-hop during a birthing sequence. There’s even an overdose character that calls to mind the infamous overdose scene in PULP FICTION, and a girl with her ear cut off serving as a callback to the ear-cutting sequence in RESERVOIR DOGS (1992).
For a director known to exclusively make his own material, “MOTHERHOOD” is an interesting anomaly in his canon. It reads to me like an energetic, young director with a veritable buffet of opportunities laid out before him, and he wants to try one of everything. Perhaps he wanted to challenge himself by submitting his unique style to the strict parameters of a pre-established serial. Or maybe he just really, really likes E.R., you guys.
1995 was definitely an experimental year for Tarantino. He was in between features, and needed to do something to stay relevant and active. By taking a quick TV directing gig, he was able to find the unexpected creativity that comes from working under well-defined parameters. “MOTHERHOOD” is a very minor entry in Tarantino’s filmography, owing to its more-or-less disposable subject matter, but it ultimately benefits him by throwing him out of his comfort zone. And as any director worth his salt knows, challenging yourself is the only real way towards growth.
E.R: “MOTHERHOOD” is currently available on standard definition DVD from Warner Brothers.
Produced by: John Wells, Robert Nathan, Michael Crichton
Director of Photography: Richard Thorpe
Production Designer: Peter Clement
Editor: Jim Gross
Original Music: Martin Davich