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Fans of the late, lamented Homicide have something to look forward to this sweeps month. NBC, giving the show more support than it ever did during Homicide's six-season run, will air a two-hour Homicide movie on Sunday. Further adding to the buzz, Homicide's producers are bringing back every single cast member who ever appeared on the program.

Big deal, I say. ER does that every week.

Hmmm, what's that? ER isn't packing its hallways three-deep with ex-cast members? The mass of humanity that parades across the set each week is the show's current cast?

Good Lord.

The addition of Maura Tierney, late of NewsRadio, to the ER ensemble swells the ranks of the existing cast to 13. For those of you keeping track at home -- and lately, it's required an assortment of calculators, spreadsheets and abaci to follow the comings and goings of the ER gang -- that's double the number of actors who appeared in the regular cast when the show debuted in 1994. And that total doesn't include the assorted Maliks, Connies, and Randis that flit on and off the screen each week, helping ER's ever-expanding army of doctors mend bones and tube patients.

Including Tierney, ER this season has added five new bodies to the rotation -- Paul McCrane as the villainous Dr. Romano, Michael Michele as the inept, child-hating pediatrician, Erik Palladino as the dumb palooka resident, Ming-Na Wen as the haunting visage of cast members past, and Goran Visnjic as the hunky Croat doctor. At this rate, Cousin Oliver will be scrubbing in by this time next year.

It says something that until I looked up the cast list at the ER Web site, I could not, under penalty of being locked in a room with Kellie Martin, tell you just exactly what the name of Goran Visnjic's character was. Dr. Hunky Croat? Luca Brasi? Ernie Kovacs? Latka Gravas? Frankly, I'm stumped.

ER's cast has swollen to the size of a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic despite the fact that actors are departing the show at breakneck speed. Gloria Reuben has already left, apparently deciding that singing back-up for Tina Turner is more fulfilling career-wise than the three minutes of screen time allotted to each ER regular every week. Julianna Margulies will follow Reuben out the door by season's end. And be sure and tune in this Thursday, when Martin departs the show after her character, Lucy Knight, is mauled by bears loose in the E.R.

Or something like that.

How bad have things gotten? In last week's episode, Laura Innes -- one of ER's leading lights -- appeared on the program for all of two minutes before she was hustled off to the sidelines. Ming-Na's contribution? Slinking through the E.R. in a black cocktail dress at the end of the show, with nary a line of dialogue. It's as if ER has adopted the same policy that the President's cabinet observes during the State of the Union address: One person has to be sequestered off in a bunker somewhere just in case disaster strikes.

The problem here isn't that ER is in danger of exceeding the fire marshal's limit for how many people can be in the room at one time. It's not a matter of the opening credits' glacial pace, or the fact that you can't keep tabs on who's who without constructing elaborate flowcharts.

The problem is simply this: ER's bulky cast size has turned a pretty good show into an unwieldy, plodding mess.

This sort of thing is not exactly unprecedented. A few years back, Chicago Hope was a very good show, better even than ER. Several hundred cast changes later, though, Chicago Hope went into the dumps, largely because the show's producers ended up jumping back and forth between dozens of poorly developed plot lines for dozens of uninteresting characters.

If nothing else, we can at least take comfort that history inexorably repeats itself.

Assume the typical episode of ER runs 52 minutes sans commercials and Gigantor-length credits. Divvy that time up among 13 characters, as the show did Thursday night, and that comes out to four minutes on screen per person. That doesn't leave much room to work out niggling details such as depth, back-story and character arc. What you get instead is a loose collection of medical drama archetypes grappling with whatever Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style plot the writers opt to pursue until they get bored and move on.

Take Margulies' Nurse Hathaway. One minute, she's talking about going to medical school. Then she's not. Later, she's truly, deeply, madly in love with Doug Ross. Oh, George Clooney's leaving the show? Time to drop that story in the dust bin. And now, Hathaway's got her hands full raising twins -- at least until they also get tiresome.

For most people, life's dramas and detours would have a dramatic effect on their development as human beings. In the ER universe? Having twins or watching the love of your life flee to the Pacific Northwest might throw you off for an episode or two, but sooner or later, you're back to being good, old Hathaway. A love affair gone awry and a pregnancy all in one year, and she's still the same dumb mope she was 12 months ago.

Plot lines and character depth aren't the only things to peter out into nothingness on ER. Supporting characters arrive on the scene, grab an inordinate amount of face time, and then disappear quicker than a political dissident in a banana republic. Jami Gertz's psychologist, Djimon Hounsou's activist turned janitor, the delightful Abraham Benrubi and his sorely missed Jerry, have led a parade of minor characters who've traipsed through the E.R. -- some of them scoring roles in significant subplots -- only to disappear without a trace. Maybe they cut off John Wells in the parking lot. I don't know.

ER pays a price for its vanishing actors, meandering plots and emotionally stunted character development. And that is, any human interaction on the show comes across as wooden-nickel phony, every plot development comes with a side order of skepticism. Drs. Greene and Corday are in love? If you say so, Slim. Michael Michele's character is a competent medical professional? I see no evidence to back up that conclusion. Maura Tierney is a medical school student that was only moonlighting as a maternity ward nurse? Of course, she was. It says so here in the script.

On the surface, of course, things couldn't be better for ER. It's the top-rated program in the country. A super-sized contract with NBC will keep cast and crew deep in the folding greens long after you and I are buried in unmarked graves in a potter's field. ER just won Best Drama at the People's Choice Awards -- and any awards show where Shasta McNasty vies for creative accolades is an impressive one, indeed.

But that's all on past momentum. If ER continues its southerly descent, high ratings are going to be harder to come by and NBC will be less willing to shell out big bucks for what's rapidly becoming a latter day Trapper John, M.D. If that happens, the show will peter out like one of its plot lines, and a lot of good actors are going to be out of work.

And considering the mammoth size of the ER cast, that would cause a recession-sparking jump in the unemployment rate.


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