"A Tribute to St. Elsewhere: The Series That I Loved, Even Though It Wanted to Be Hated".
While the long history of television does include innumerable oddities, I submit that there has never been a series quite like St. Elsewhere (1982-1988). I might justify my interest in the series by noting that it occasionally drifted into fantasy territory, as in the episode with an apparently magical Santa Claus and the one in which Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel) has a near-death experience and encounters a deceased colleague in heaven. Or I could refer to the show's final episode, which suggests that the whole sordid saga of St. Elsewhere was only a sick delusion of the autistic child of Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders), and argue that this retroactively transformed the entire series into a fantasy. But St. Elsewhere actually stands out because it was the only television series in history that actively despised its audience, the only television series in history that longed to drive away viewers, earn miserable ratings, and get cancelled. Paradoxically, even though the series was highly successful in managing to attract fewer and fewer viewers, it was repeatedly and unexpectedly renewed for another season due to demographic research demonstrating that the program was remarkably good at attracting precisely the sorts of viewers that advertisers craved—masochists?
I kid you not. For the writers of this series, the story conferences for future episodes began with the question, "All right, now what can we do to piss viewers off?" If a character was getting popular, they killed him off, or had him do something cruel or stupid to make viewers dislike him. The series cheerfully depicted a hospital in which absolutely everything went wrong, and absolutely everything kept getting worse. This was the series that, for its obligatory heartwarming Christmas episode, depicted the death of Santa Claus. Its idealistic young doctor, "Boomer" Morrison (David Morse) was revealed to be a fraud without valid medical training, while the ebullient, likable Dr. Elliot Axelrod (Stephen Furst) died of a heart attack. When a charmingly cantankerous patient, Mrs. Hugnagel (Florence Halop), was getting to be too well liked, she was promptly slaughtered by her own hospital bed, and one of the lead characters, Dr. Craig (William Daniels) killed a patient by making an idiotic mistake.
The irksome twist in the final episode, perhaps the series' culminating achievement in irritating its audience, may reflect the fact that its creators had been driven to absolute fury because, despite their best efforts, they were still being asked to film episodes. After all, a year before the last season, the producers, positively convinced that they had finally succeeded in achieving ratings so abysmally low that even skewed demographic research could not stave off cancellation, threw a celebratory cancellation party in anticipation of the inevitable news and filmed a projected final episode in which St. Elegius Hospital was being demolished by a wrecking ball, with Dr. Westphall (Ed Flanders) waiting inside to be destroyed along with his whole wretched hospital. But, dash it all, NBC defied all expectations and renewed the series yet again, forcing producers to go back to the drawing board and churn out one last season in which the hospital is rescued at the last minute, and then of course even further ruined, by being taken over by an HMO. But this time, the producers took no chances: they filmed their second final episode and told NBC, with grave finality, that they were bringing the series to a close. And thus, having long ago driven away the vast majority of its potential audience, St. Elsewhere finally alienated the few, perversely fascinated viewers who remained by, in effect, cancelling itself.
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