Starring Randolph Mantooth, Kevin Tighe, Robert Fuller, Julie London
Paramount Home Video
Available: Jan. 29, 2008
In the early 1970s, if you wanted to get a glimpse of what paramedics do in the course of a typical day, your options were kind of limited. Basically, you could either: (1) become a paramedic; or (2) wait for a car accident to occur on your block. Obviously, both of these involved an investment of time somewhat disproportionate to the goal at hand.
Enter Emergency!, a one-hour television drama chronicling the goings-on of a Los Angeles fire station and the nearby emergency hospital served by it. Premiering in 1972 and co-created by Jack Webb, the show was not altogether unlike Dragnet — only with emergency medical personnel instead of hard-boiled detectives. The series mostly follows the work of John Gage (Randolph Mantooth) and Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe), two paramedics from Engine 51. A second component of the show’s focus is the emergency room staff at Rampart General Hospital, to which the victims attended to by Engine 51 are typically transported. This staff includes Dr. Kelly Brackett (Robert Fuller), Dr. Joe Early (Bobby Troup), Dr. Mike Morton (Ron Pinkard), and head nurse Dixie McCall (Julie Lond on). The series’ remaining regular cast consists of the other members of the Engine 51 crew, some of whom are played by real-life firefighters who go by their real names in the show.
Putting aside for a moment whether it’s a worthwhile endeavor, if one were to divide early-1970s TV shows into a Brady Bunch school of thought and an All in the Family school, Emergency! would, I think, be considerably more aligned with the Brady Bunch mentality. Sure, things go wrong on the show — sometimes disastrously (after all, the plot action is essentially a succession of life-threatening emergencies of varying scope) — but the overall vibe is incongruously chipper. (Or perhaps “CHiPper,” as Emergency! frequently projects a feel very much like its later-1970s California Highway Patrol counterpart.) To more fully impart the strange juxtaposition of medical emergency and lightheartedness that permeates the series, I refer to a description Gilbert Gottfried once gave of a possible Disney TV series, in which one of the main characters was a rotting, maggot-infested corpse. “But they were cute little Disney maggots,” reassured Gilbert, if I recall correctly. So it goes with Emergency! — even though the victims on the show often present with grave injuries (and sometimes even die), just about everyone seems to live happily ever after by the time each episode ends.
As I began watching Season Four of Emergency! on DVD, I realized that the last time I saw even a single episode of the series was back in the late 1970s, most likely during its early syndication. Luckily, the show still delivers. That being said, in 2008 I found it difficult to ignore two basic circumstances and their effect upon my current enjoyment of the show: first, I’ve aged approximately thirty years since I last watched it; and second, the world has aged approximately thirty years since I last watched it. I don’t know which of these has more greatly diminished the on-the-edge-of-your-seat nature of my own original Emergency! viewing experience, but the show doesn’t quite feel the same to me in the current calendar year. I was probably about seven or eight when I started watching it, so that could be it. After all, anything combining sirens, fire engines, explosions, and at least one cobra (yes, cobra) is gonna gain instant approval from and inspire a certain amount of awe in a third-grader. But there’s also the fact that a concentrated hour of that type of thing simply did not exist on television previously. Indeed, Emergency! was literally the first TV series that showed, in close detail, what emergency medical personnel actually do. As such, it was nearly as educational as it was exciting. Many other shows with similar premises were to follow — perhaps most notably (at least in recent times), ER — but Emergency!‘s response time beat them all by years, if not decades. Nevertheless, no matter how you cut it, it is unfortunately the year 2008 now, and contemporary TV viewers’ constant bombardment with all manner of emergency-related images (be they real or fictional) has taken its toll, I think. Simply put, there is no longer any real sense of newness to be felt in viewing such images. Certainly not as much as in the days when Emergency! first aired. For folks lucky enough to have tuned in to the show then, this may make for a slight letdown when watching the DVD release of the series.
One final point worth considering about Emergency! is that the emergencies themselves somewhat are the show. Even though the lead actors are perfectly adequate and possess strong on-screen presences, the series does not seem to offer much in the way of character development. Unlike, say, Third Watch, we never really get to know the main characters in any detail. They are, for all intents and purposes, their job responsibilites. That they occasionally engage in more “fun” activities (e.g., the fire crew’s rehearsals for an upcoming barbershop quartet competition) between calls does not make up for their one-dimensionality. For this reason, the twenty-two episodes of Season Four, although lively throughout, sometimes come off as a little flat. To put things in Emergency! terms, Season Four’s scripts might have benefitted from some defibrillation and perhaps an IV of D5W. As for its five-disc DVD issue, a small dose of extras couldn’t hurt, either, as none are included. A guest spot by Adam West, however, is, upping the geek value of this season exponentially.