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Pop CultureMay 26, 2018

I was a teenage ER fanatic


ER might be one of the biggest television shows of all time, but it’s rarely thought of as the subject of teen obsession. Claire Adamson was the exception that proves the rule.

Obsession is a rite of passage for a teenage girl. From the Beatles to Bieber, the teen girl has long buoyed the print magazine economy through a need to paper her bedroom with pics of her fave television heartthrob, popstar or bespectacled teen wizard. My sister had every Spice Girls doll, my cousin kissed her poster of Taylor Hanson every night before bed, and my friend nearly launched herself off of a balcony at Brandon Boyd, the oft-shirtless lead singer of Incubus.

Meanwhile, I was struggling to keep secret the most middle-aged obsession of all time.

If you’re a 90s kid, you’ll see this and start hearing sirens immediately.

ER debuted on NBC in 1994, when I was nine. I know I watched some of the early seasons – certainly enough that by the time I reached teen-hood, it had become a necessary and unmovable part of my schedule. But it wasn’t until season seven, in the early years of the new millennium when my obsession began to kick in. I was, appropriately, in year 12.

It’s not obvious what drew me to ER so strongly. Being set in the emergency room of a busy hospital in inner-city Chicago meant that there was very little in there for a suburban Auckland teen to relate to. But relate I did, hard, and life became a series of long waits until Monday night would roll around again, reuniting me with the staff of County General.

There was something about the sparseness of the feelings portion of the show that was just enough. For the most part, the show was about the action; the main characters, while being fleshed out and complex, played second fiddle to the ER itself. There was just enough of each character and each relationship to keep the audience involved and wanting more. ER knew how to treat its audience mean and keep ‘em keen.

The raw passion and tension here.

The show began life in the 1970s as a screenplay written and forgotten by Michael Crichton, before he found his muse in DNA sequencing and an enraged velociraptor. Eventually, with the help of Steven Spielberg, ER made its way onto network television in the early 1990s, with some of the characters tweaked so the cast wasn’t entirely made up of white men. It would go on to run for 15 seasons, launching the careers of George Clooney and Julianna Margulies into the stratosphere.

The crux of my ER obsession was my first experience with shipping. Season seven marked the start of a major story arc that saw Dr. John Carter (Noah Wyle) begin to recover from his addiction to painkillers with the help of recovering alcoholic and ER nurse Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney).

The romantic tension between the two remained unrequited for a full and unbearable TWO SEASONS, traversing storylines around Abby’s bipolar mother (played with unbridled enthusiasm by Sally Field), Carter’s brief relapse into his addiction and a public health emergency triggered by a suspected case of smallpox. In classic will-they-won’t-they form, the relationship became immediately uninteresting following their first (spoiler alert for 20 years ago) kiss, and only lasted for a single, chemistry-deficient season before it was mercifully euthanized.

The kind of raw passion that you could only see in the mid-90s on network TV.

Shipping has always been a particular weakness of mine. Any episode where Carter and Abby’s ongoing storyline was periphery to the main action was a disappointment, as I would have to wait a full week for more. Even the death of Dr Greene, the show’s beating heart up till that point, was just an unwanted distraction – although more recent viewings of that particular episode have made me a sodden, teary mess.

The timing of Carter and Abby’s relationship coincided nicely with the era of AngelFire, where everyone and her dog were building their own websites dedicated to all manner of obsession. My teenage self sat at the shared computer in the rumpus room in the dead of night and spent hours on various shittily made websites reading all about my fave TV couple.

I followed forums, I read episode synopses, I even made sure to read up on the rival ship between Abby and Luka Kovac, the broodingly handsome Croatian doctor played by Goran Visnjic (basically George Clooney’s replacement, who would be in turn replaced by Uncle Jesse). I even found an internet pen pal who was almost as obsessed as me although, annoyingly, she often seemed more interested in learning about me and my life than discussing the minutiae of Carter and Abby’s interactions in the latest episode.

Along with this surreptitious internet research, I tried to jam oblique references to ER into every conversation. I once felt the giddy highs of victory when I managed to gently coerce a friend into saying the word “intubation”, and could barely contain my excitement when a girl in my biology class casually said that the plants we were studying looked like the disease that had featured on the episode from the night before. Carter and Abby’s song, ‘Hanging by a Moment’ by Nickelback-lite soft rock band Lifehouse, was on constant repeat on my stereo.

The weirdest thing that I did was drop the word “Carby” into my everyday lexicon. Carby – the pre-Bubbline/Larry Stylinson portmanteau name of the Carter-Abby ship – became an unusual touchpoint in my friend group, whereby I would bring it up constantly and try and make everyone guess what it was. I told one of my high-school friends I was writing an article about ER this week. “Carby” she said, nodding knowingly.

It took my friends a very long time to google it, because it was 2001 and whipping your phone out to look something up wasn’t yet a thing. Today, you’ll get a list of results about carburettors and eating a load of bread and pasta, but there is an entry on Urban Dictionary for it, illustrating that I am not the only lunatic in the world who was obsessed with this thing.

My obsession lasted all the way through seasons seven and eight, covering my final two years at high school, when most kids were either chatting to their friends on MSN Messenger on a Monday night, or only watching ER in the background because their parents were. I did go on to obsess over some more normal ships – I got right into the Dawson-Joey romance, and briefly flirted with an obsession with Alias, the Jennifer Garner spy show that had a very secondary will-they-won’t-they storyline. I never really cared about Ross and Rachel.

But Carby, and ER, holds a special place in my heart – my first proper obsession. Even though I was worried about being crazy at the time, I know now it wasn’t really unhealthy at all, and that obsession is a perfectly normal part of being a teenager.

Even if it is an obsession with a medical TV drama.

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