Err, New Boundaries for Fiction?! ER's 'Live' Episode

How to Cite

Meakins, F. (1998). Err, New Boundaries for Fiction?! ER’s ’Live’ Episode. M/C Journal, 1(1).
Vol. 1 No. 1 (1998): New
Published 1998-07-01

"Ambush", the first episode of ER's fourth season began amid much publicity and excitement. The premiere, though scripted, was filmed 'live' using two handheld cameras and broadcast simultaneously across America's east coast. The episode was then rerecorded for the west coast. The effect of this new format was to capture an incredibly large audience, yet perhaps a more interesting effect was the blurring of the borders between fiction and reality on television. Indeed this episode superimposed documentary techniques onto a fictional genre, causing a lack of distinction. It is interesting to examine "Ambush" in terms of style, narrative and voice to determine the effects of the new format.

"Ambush" adopts the camera techniques of cinema verité, a documentary style which emerged in the 1950s. The invention of the 16 mm handheld camera and synchronised sound meant that events could be filmed as they occurred, 'live' . The result of this new technology was shaky camera work, poor framing and focusing which suggested that the camera point of view was an immediate form of 'reality' (Kuhn 73). Since this time, the technology involved in the production of documentary has improved, enabling smoother camera work. Yet the general principles and overall style of cinema verité are still adopted. Kuhn (76) suggests that this camera style has become a naturalised set of codes, a substitute evidence for the 'truth'.

ER uses cinema verité camera techniques in the construction of liveness and immediacy. Badly focused scenes and jolting camera shots abound. Yet this style is not jarring, it is strangely suited to the genre of medical television and in fact adds to the sense of momentum and character instability. However a more disturbing effect is also present. As the sense of 'reality' is heightened, the actors in the show who play doctors and nurses move closer to becoming social actors who are doctors and nurses -- the viewer can almost believe that George Clooney is really Doug Ross.

One argument which may be posited against the construction of 'reality' in "Ambush" is the use of narrative. ER, though it uses open ended closure, seems to conform to Classical Hollywood narrative structure of goal orientated causality (Bordwell). The 'live' episode is no different. It may be argued that the use of narrative in this episode mitigates the effects of the construction of 'reality'. Yet this does not occur. The audience still understands this episode in terms of its sense of the here and now without being hindered by the scripted plot. Indeed Winston (118) suggests that logical causation is an inherent part of human behaviour and a diluted form of the Classical Hollywood narrative may be projected onto the documentary form without any adverse effects to the perception of reality.

Thus it seems that this episode of ER closely follows the documentary form. Even ethical issues, such as the intervention of the filmmaker are considered when the camera operator questions a medical decision made by Dr. Kerry. However the audience is still conscious that this episode is firmly rooted in the realm of fiction. Perhaps this awareness is due to an underlying difference between the documentary and fictional forms -- voice (Nichols 166).

Classical Hollywood realism places its emphasis on the process of achieving a goal through narrative, whereas documentary uses voice to produce an ideological argument about the social world (Nichols 166). In this episode, ER does little to form an overriding argument for the narrative. It is merely interested in the narrative goals of making patients better and helping characters overcome emotional struggles. Indeed argument is difficult to produce without voice.

Voice, which constructs an argument, is woven into the text by the filmmaker who is often the camera operator. In a sense, ER appears to produce voice, the subjective perspective of the filmmaker. Yet the filmmakers -- two camera operators, Agi and Stuart Orton -- are fictional. Thus these people cannot really produce voice as they have no true perspective on the events and therefore cannot construct a 'real' argument. The true filmmakers are the writers of ER and they produce narrative, not voice.

In conclusion, the 'live' episode of ER has transformed the boundaries of fiction by using a naturalised documentary style. This new form may be considered transgressive, "a flagrant flaunting of broken rules, smashed conventions, fragmented surfaces" (Martin 23). Admittedly some programmes such as Homicide: Life on the Street have been using a diluted form of this camera style for some time now. Shows such as these emphasise drama and action and the documentary form can heighten this sense of excitement and liveness, if not actuality. "Ambush" has epitomised this new transgressive form. Thus, even if it did not succeed in producing the true effects of 'reality', ER certainly attained new levels of TV fascination. In the words of one Internet writer:

"Wow, that was interesting!" (Hollifield).

Author Biography

Felicity Meakins