If you happened to go on the official site for “ER” the night the final episode aired on April 2, you might have noticed a poll on the busy front page asking whether you’d ever want to see an “ER” reunion movie. With 93% ultimately saying “yes”, it’s inevitable now we’ll see a two-hour “ER” follow-up movie in another year. And don’t count out the possibility that if that one is successful, you’ll see more two-hour movies under the “ER” umbrella. Of course, those who really loved the show will want to tune in to see the original cast again rather than the second (or was it third?) generation cast that ultimately brought the ratings down on this show once making NBC billions. It’s not out of the question that if the first one is successful, you’d be seeing “ER” two-hour movies for another 15 years.
Those TV movies would have to be on the weekends, though, unless Jay Leno is willing to move over occasionally next season for 9-11 p.m. movies on NBC as we used to see in a better TV era. Should “ER” go this route, it’s obviously not the first time a TV series has expanded into occasional if even recurring movies that sometimes go on for a longer period of time than the original series did. Back in the earlier days of TV, there wasn’t really a concept of continuing a TV show in movie form after the show officially ended its run. Up until the 1970’s, once a series ended, it ended–followed by an occasional one-shot or complete revival that counted it as a series once again.
“The Honeymooners” was one of the first examples of a series reviving numerous times through the guise of specials or through Jackie Gleason’s long-running variety show. Despite that, the original run of “The Honeymooners” is credited as lasting only one season in the mid 50’s when it was actually seen in various forms afterward, right up to the late 1970’s via short TV specials. In fact, the first time a two-hour movie was done after a popular series left the air was in the 1970’s. If you have to connect “ER” to that first-time example, it’d have to be the 70’s smash “Emergency.”
Shows about firefighters and the paramedics/doctors who save our life have always been popular. But no show other than “ER” was as popular as “Emergency” in its heyday. Produced by “Dragnet” star Jack Webb who brought this type of show to TV for the first time in the late 60’s with “Adam-12”, “Emergency” showed us recreations of what our firefighters and paramedics have to deal with on a daily and nightly basis. In the series, it was Squad 51 in Los Angeles where everything and anything happened, with a cavalcade of character actors acting out those who find themselves in the strangest predicaments and emergencies.
This show really set the mold for “ER”, though was careful not to show blood and gore that “ER” later brought to the fore for the first time on network TV. Nevertheless, it was still compellingly real enough to give it a healthy six-year run on NBC. When the final episode aired in 1977 (with no clips utilized until a TV movie later), it was already being re-run in syndication on many local stations where kids were either re-absorbing it or watching it for the first time. There was also a moderately-successful Saturday morning animated version that aired for a few seasons concurrently with the live-action show.
It was just too popular to end, and NBC was listening and reading all the letters of protest…
While most of the younger cast of “Emergency” seemed to want to move on to other projects, NBC later announced that the following season would have several special two-hour “Emergency” TV movies on the schedule. And so they did with spectacular ratings, plus spectacular plots. Yes, in order to make them stand alone, there had to be a monumental fire or disaster that would challenge Squad 51 to the near breaking point. These occasional movies went on into the summer of 1979 and finally ended–yet with most general TV references saying the show was done by ’77.
I’ve always been puzzled why TV reference books and IMDb.com don’t reflect long-running TV movies as part of a series when they could easily count as episodes. The best case scenario for that would be “Perry Mason” where one reunion movie in 1985, nearly 20 years after the series went off the air, kicked off about a decade’s worth of other Perry Mason TV movies. From 1985-93, Raymond Burr starred in 30 Mason TV movies–and they should have been added to the total run of the series considering there was generally three to four of them per year during that timeframe. The producers even tried to continue the movies beyond the death of Raymond Burr for about a year, which unsurprisingly failed.
Should reference books decide to amend that and add TV movies as part of the series total, it would make “Perry Mason” one of the Top Twenty longest-running TV series of all time. Before and after the Mason movies, you had similar situations that could add to the season count of classic shows. What about all those two-hour network TV movies for “Gilligan’s Island”, “Brady Bunch”, “Murder She Wrote” and “Matlock?” With at least several seasons of TV movies for “Gilligan’s Island” in the late 70’s/early 80’s, you could technically say it lasted longer than three seasons. Same goes to “Brady Bunch” when all of its different incarnations are too numerous to mention. At least they finally turned it back into a very brief and failed series (“The Bradys”) in 1990, despite the occasional TV movie working much better.
Don’t count out “Murder She Wrote” being over completely either. Angela Lansbury may be getting elderly now, but it’s not out of the possibility of her doing a TV movie again playing Jessica Fletcher. It might be a record to re-start a series of TV movies after a (as of now) six-year hiatus. However, reference material should note an extra few years onto the 12-year series when those four TV movies aired right on through 2003.
It seems that the most successful TV movie extensions are either mystery, legal or medical shows. The only exception would be the “Brady Bunch” TV movies that are considered comedy. With the failed “The Bradys” being a dramedy, though, it more or less makes the world of Brady stand alone.
Should “ER” come back as a series of intermittent TV movies, they’ll likely have to go the route of “Emergency” and come up with something huge as “ER” did periodically during their season finales. If they continue with one spectacular movie a year for fifteen years, it could bring the compelling nature back to “ER” that made it a hit in the first place rather than being watered down in soap opera plots with the doctors…