'ER' Bows Out

Fifteen years ago, NBC began airing a medical drama featuring a cast comprised of largely unknown actors, producing some of the most riveting drama on TV.

Tonight, "ER" airs its final episode, a two-hour deal that follows a one-hour retrospective that begins at 8 p.m.

So how does "ER" rank in the pantheon of great TV?

In my opinion, it will be remembered as a very good show when all is said and done, but not the classic it could've been had it ended about five or six years ago. NBC's decision to reap the financial benefits of keeping it on the air watered down the dramatic legacy of the series.

Certainly, it will be remembered as a series that launched the careers of George Clooney, Julianna Margulies, Noah Wyle and others, and it gave a new lease of life to medical dramas that have popped up on the tube since.

But after the initial rush of high tension and great acting, "ER" grew into a rather familiar pattern, combining the various cases of the week with the soap opera-like character arcs. How many girlfriends did Carter (Wyle) end up having? How many times did Ross (Clooney) act as a screw-up? What other bad thing could be piled upon poor Dr. Greene (Anthony Edwards)?

I quit watching when Wyle left the cast as a full-time member. Since the original pilot and first season were told from his perspective, mirroring the real-life experiences of late creator Michael Crichton, I felt it was a good note to leave on. Even though the cast added some very good actors and characters after the initial cast -- particularly Laura Innes and Maura Tierney -- by then all of the original cast had gone.

"ER" still proved profitable for NBC even as late as now, and in theory, it could go on forever, a' la "Law & Order" with its rotating casts. But I think it's the right decision to finally let "ER" die a dignified death.

The real shame is that NBC is so poor at developing good dramas that it won't be replaced next season by a drama. Instead, the network will go with Jay Leno's variety talk show five nights a week at 10 p.m., a real sign of the dark times at NBC.

But at least the network will be able to celebrate its glory days one more time.

AROUND THE DIAL: The University of Georgia announced its picks for the prestigious Peabody Awards yesterday. You can find them here: The Peabodys are the most prestigious award in television, even more important than an Emmy. (Full disclosure: I was a Peabody student judge in 1993). ... Another long-running series announced its end yesterday. "Guiding Light," which began on NBC radio some 72 years ago and later switched to CBS TV, will finish up in September. ... Bad news for "Pushing Daisies" fans: ABC has apparently decided not to air the remaining three episodes. We will have to wait to see them when the Season 2 DVD comes out in late July. What that means for "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Eli Stone," which also had unaired episodes is unclear, but both shows will likely share "Pushing Daisies'" fate and come out with the unaired episodes on DVD.

THURSDAY'S BEST BETS: Sam and Dean find their adventures chronicled in comic book form on "Supernatural" (CW, 9 p.m.) But wait, their adventures really are chronicled in comic book form in real life. Does that mean Sam and Dean really are out there fighting monsters and demons? My mind was just blown! It follows a new "Smallville" at 8 p.m.

If the medical drama on NBC isn't for you, you can watch the medical dramas on ABC with "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice," beginning at 9 p.m. and following new episodes of "In The Motherhood" and "Samantha Who?"

"Eleventh Hour" (CBS, 10 p.m.) airs its season finale tonight with guest star Helen Slater. The show did well enough where it ought to be picked up for a second season; hopefully, Agent Young will take the downtime to figure out that she should not be sticking Dr. Hood in the middle of dangerous shootouts and plagues every week. It follows new episodes of "Survivor" and "CSI."

Bones and Booth investigate a half-eaten corpse on "Bones" (Fox, 8 p.m.), followed by "Hell's Kitchen."