I don’t know about you, but I find the culmination of Emmy season to be a time of great reflection. When yearly TV accolades are handed out, I can’t help ruminating on all the best shows and episodes I’ve witnessed in my life and on everything I love about the medium. For me, the best TV does a handful of things:
- It follows the recipe for its genre or format, but adds new and emotionally challenging ingredients to give us an experience that’s recognizable and relatable, but ALSO surprising and cathartic.
- It revels in characters and their flaws.
- It finds unexpected humor and poignancy in tragic situations.
- It is often about disparate people coming together as a community, family or team.
- It feels like the best theater.
One show that tends to exemplify all these things is St. Elsewhere.
Today, we don’t think twice about equivocating television series to other storytelling mediums like literature or theater, but TV hasn’t always been held in such high esteem. In the 1980s, shows like St. Elsewhere and its predecessor by one season, Hill Street Blues, (both airing on NBC and produced by MTM Enterprises) helped to lift the television drama—and especially the television procedural—to a new level of artistry and credibility.
During its seven-year run, St. Elsewhere became known for its mold-breaking episodes that challenged its own pre-existing promise and structure. Thanks to a generous script donation from Ed Begley, Jr., who played Dr. Ehrlich on the show, the library has many of these scripts in its collection.
My recommended reading for this week is an episode from St. Elsewhere’s second season, entitled “The Women.” It won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series in 1984. I’m recommending it not simply because it won an Emmy but because it’s a great study episode for writers, packing tightly into one 60-page script all of my aforementioned tenets that make for great television.
Written by renowned playwright John Ford Noonan with a story by John Masius & Tom Fontana, “The Women” feels like a free-standing play within a series. The main characters in the episode are three female patients, all different ages and in the hospital for different reasons, sharing the same room. Over the course of the story, they bond, making their own micro community and helping each other to heal.
The episode is innovative in how it’s the guest actors who take the front seat, never to be seen again after this one episode, while the series regulars—the doctors—fill the supporting roles. Read how one of the patients, the 80-year-old Evelyn, interacts with Doctors Westphall and Craig:
Naturally, reading any produced television script can help a writer to hone their taste, preferences and ability to distinguish great writing from not-so-great writing (even though it’s all very subjective). If you’re like me and taking the time to reflect at the end of this Emmy season, why not stop by the library to read scripts from nominated shows?
We have everything from The Handmaid’s Tale to Atlanta to The Crown to that delightful "Thanksgiving" episode from Master of None. But while you’re reading those, why not also pick up scripts from classic Emmy award winners like St. Elsewhere, which can be seen in many ways as an influence on today’s contemporary shows?
Whatever your taste might be, you can always find both classic and contemporary series by searching our library catalog and stopping by for a visit.
And if I’ve piqued your interest about St. Elsewhere, you can also watch our Writer Speaks oral history interview with one half of its creators, Josh Brand, conducted with The Archive of American Television.