Dialogue: John Wells
'ER's' executive producer reflects on the quality of the show and shares his secrets for primetime longevity.When executive producer John Wells predicts that "ER" will wind up being his only series to achieve the 300-episode mark, that's not pessimism talking but simple reality. If a producer gets one show like this in a lifetime, he's way ahead of the game. Only 20 other scripted entertainment series have made it this far, putting Wells into some rarefied air with the likes of "Lassie" (1954-1974), "Gunsmoke" (1955-1975), "Bonanza" (1959-1973), "Dallas" (1978-1991), Fox's "The Simpsons" (1989-present) and NBC's "Law & Order" (1990-present). So while this wasn't Wells' first TV series success -- he also helped write and produce "China Beach" from 1988-1991 and was involved with both "Third Watch" and "The West Wing" -- he puts the NBC medical drama's consistent quality and sheer longevity right up at the top of his proudest career achievements. The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond spoke recently with the five-time Emmy winner and former WGA president for his take on how "ER" has managed to make it to the Big 3-0-0.
The Hollywood Reporter: It's pretty remarkable for a show to get to 300 episodes in this era of fragmentation and such immense competition. Most of those that made it did it in the era of the three-network universe.
John Wells: That's absolutely true. I have to believe this show has been blessed by the gods, from having George Clooney and that amazing cast at the outset, to carving out an audience that stuck with us when a lot of great shows were tossed against us.
THR: Why do you think a series about life in an emergency room has had this kind of uncanny staying power?
Wells: We did it smart by always making sure we never diverted too far from reality. We sometimes sped up the events for artistic reasons, but everything that happens medically on the show actually gets done in a real ER. Never once did we say, "Let's just do it anyway" when something wasn't supported by our research.
THR: What kind of research are we talking about?
Wells: We always have at least one real physician in the writers room and two emergency room physicians on the set. They work for the show full time when we're in production, and they'll blow the whistle if something doesn't sound plausible.
THR: It seems that the TV audience is endlessly fascinated by the medical world.
Wells: People have an innate fear of their own health and mortality. They may never come into contact with a murder investigation, but at some point illness and medical emergencies impact everyone on the planet. In "ER," we've presented a show that depicts professionals who are dedicated to their work. They have personal problems and they make mistakes, but they do everything they can to take care of those who need them.
THR: Do you look at certain episodes you guys have done and wish you could have them back?
Wells: Well yeah, if you do 300 of these things, they aren't all going to be classics. But I maintain that our quality batting average has been pretty high. We've done quite a few that I'd term as excellent, a large group that are very good, a smaller group that's just good and a few that were disappointing and not terribly emotionally fulfilling.
THR: You guys broke from the box back in the mid-1990s with stellar ratings the first several years, but the show seemingly has endured its share of challenges -- including the revolving door of cast changes and a budget that's always been massive.
Wells: Yes, the finances on this show always have been tough. But we've been able to make it work. And as for the cast, we've been really fortunate to have such extraordinary talent, from the original group to those we have now. A Julianna Margulies will leave, and a Maura Tierney will step in. That right there helps explain why we're still around.
THR: Are you sick of doing this show yet?
Wells: I'm not sick of it, actually. I still love the people I'm involved with, the serialized storytelling, how the characters change and grow. It's still fun.
THR: That leads us to the inevitable question of whether "ER" will be back for a 15th season. You've been quoted as saying it might.
Wells: That's true. We might be back. The writers strike that has interrupted season 14 will play a part in that decision. All I can say right now is nothing is set in stone one way or the other.