Television Review

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The Independent Culture
GETTING RID of a star isn't easy, even when they want to go. Witness Bobby Simone's recent, hopelessly indulgent demise on NYPD Blue: weeks of pain and delirium culminating in visions of other-worldly bar- tenders - death kitsch on an almost Victorian scale.

Next to this, George Clooney's departure from ER (C4) was a fairly restrained affair: a blizzard, a busload of maimed children, sexual dysfunction leading to a stabbing, student Lucy and teacher Carter getting it on in the exam room, Jeanie Boulet turning out to have hepatitis C as well as HIV. In among all this, the potential murder charge facing Clooney's character, Doug Ross - he had helped a mother to give an overdose of painkillers to her dying child - became one of many dramas, and not the biggest. When he decided to quit Chicago and head for Seattle, leaving Carol Hathaway to grieve alone, there was too much going on for the viewer to have any sense of an ending.

That looks like a good plan, leaving the audience with enough emotional investment in the remaining characters to have a reason to tune in next week - will Carter escape Lucy, or will she continue to play him like a fish on a hook? But it also reflects ER's great strength, its reckless willingness to keep throwing bodies and resources at a problem (it's a very American way of doing things - you can see the same approach at work in Kosovo, with rather less focus and rather less success). A cute conversation about what Carter did/did not get up to with Lucy segued straight into the arrival of the children from the crashed bus, filling the air with screams, cries of "I'm so cold", rupt- ured diaphragms and bloodied stumps ("Can you save it?", "If we find the hand"). Among so many throwaway traumas, dotted with jokey trivia (a pile of pizza boxes became a recurring visual prop), exercising critical faculties is problematic. At one level, you may retain some dim awareness that life isn't really like this, that you're being manipulated into feeling cross or gooey about a bunch of plaster saints and cardboard sinners. But you're being manipulated so hard, so fast that resistance is never an option.

Flipping from ER to HMS Splendid: under the Sea (BBC1), you could see how hard it is to achieve this effect. A nuclear submarine on exercises must be one of the most physically and emotionally pressurised environments imaginable; but on camera it's impossible to convey more than a distant, theoretical sense of how it feels.

This is at least partly because of the nature of life in a tin can, where relationships may be squeezed into a kind of intim- acy but, as one sailor put it, people remain associates rather than friends; and there must be all kinds of unhelpful restrictions on what you can film. It isn't as if James Hayes' series is afraid to manipulate reality when it can - one sequence had a wife talking about her absent husband while curled up in bed with the bedside light on, as if the camera crew had shaken her awake in the middle of the night to get her opinion.

But by and large, this is slow, dreary stuff. Life would love to imitate art; but it just can't get the accent right.