Was Carol Hathaway Originally Going to Die in the ER Pilot?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: Julianna Margulies’ character, Carol Hathaway, basically died in the first episode of ER.

TV shows have long had a tradition of writing characters off in early episodes and then quickly changing their minds when early audiences responded well to the character. Hill Street Blues famously re-shot two early episodes (including the pilot) when they decided to bring two characters back from the dead (Officer Renko in the pilot and Officer Coffey at the end of the first season). In the case of Julianna Marguelies’ Carol Hathaway on the plot of ER, though, the change amusingly happened after they left the first episode the same, meaning that they left the first episode as it was originally written, including the fact that Carol effectively died in the episode!

We meet Carol Hathaway, County General’s nurse manager, early in the two-hour pilot of ER, titled “24 Hours” (since the whole first episode takes place in, yes, you guessed it, 24 hours). She is clearly competent and well liked and she also is shown to have had a past with roguish doctor, Doug Ross (George Clooney).

She leaves work near the halfway point of the episode…

However, right before she leaves, we see her get something from the drug cabinet (to which she had the keys)….

We don’t think anything of it, of course, until about mid-way through the episode when Carol shows up as a PATIENT! She has overdosed!

Here’s the thing, though. Originally, Carol was going to die in the episode. As a result, the various tests that they ran on Carol were such that she effectively was dead. Here is a brilliant summation of the situation by Lindsay E. Murphy:

Carol’s prognosis in the Pilot is so dismal because of two things mentioned: her serum barbiturate level and her positive Babinski reflex. In the first case, a “serum barb” is part of a tox screening that measures the amount of barbiturates (a potent class of central nervous system depressants/sedatives) in the patient’s bloodstream. Depending on the specific drug she took, the serum concentration of barbiturate needed for a fatal dose can range from anywhere between 30 and 80 mcg/mL; Carol’s was 45 mcg/mL, which should have been more than enough to kill her.
Second, the positive Babinski. Barbiturates work by inhibiting activity in the nervous system; consequently the CNS slows down, which makes barbiturates a very handy class of drugs for controlling seizures and sedating hyperactive patients. Overdose, however, causes a “shutdown” situation in the CNS, leading to coma, respiratory arrest, and death as the brainstem (the segment of the CNS that controls autonomic functions such as respiration and heartbeat) shuts down. One test used in neurology to see how badly the CNS is damaged is the Babinski reflex; stroking an object (the end of a reflex hammer, a blade, your finger, whatever) along the outside sole of the foot should cause the foot to flex inward (plantar flexion); this is a negative Babinski, and suggests intact motor function. In a positive Babinski, the toes, most notably the big toe, dorsiflex (splay outward); this is a sign of severe motor deficit, and is usually (though not always) associated with diffuse cerebral damage.

This last point also refers to Morganstern’s comment. Decerebration, or the loss of cerebral functions, is the complete shutdown of the cerebrum, that portion of the brain that controls all higher functions – senses, thinking, memory, etc. If the cerebellum and hindbrain (or brainstem) are intact, the patient will retain autonomic function and remain in a coma; if these structures are damaged as well, there will be no respiration or heartbeat save for that artificially maintained by a ventilator and/or pacer, and the patient is said to be brain-dead.

Given her barb level and lack of CNS response, Carol should have died. A few patients have been known to survive high doses of barbiturates – the chances of this happening, however, do fall into miracle territory.

However, test audiences liked Carol so much that the show decided to have her survive, but without changing the rest of the episode! Kevin Reilly, NBC’s VP of Drama at the time, noted that they looped in a line about her maybe surviving, but that must have been in reruns, because it’s not in the original pilot.

Carol, though, survived and showed up alive in the next episode. It reminds me a lot of how 77 Sunset Strip’s pilot ended with Edd Byrnes’ Kookie headed to the electric chair but audiences liked him so much that they retconned the first episode at the start of the second episode and Kookie became a good guy.

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Lindsay for the excellent information!

Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of TV.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

Did the Federal Government Once Secretly Pay TV Networks For Having Anti-Drug Messages in Shows?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: The federal government once secretly paid TV networks for having anti-drug messages in episodes of their shows.

We are all familiar with TV shows working with the United States government to have special “Anti-drug” episodes. This was particularly the “in” thing to do when Nancy Reagan was the First Lady, as she made a big deal about appearing on popular sitcoms among kids to promote her anti-drug programs. Here she is with Gary Coleman from an anti-drug episode of Diff’rent Strokes…

And here’s an episode of Punky Brewster that tied in with the First Lady’s “Just Say No” campaign…

That’s all well and good, but what if the government got involved more surreptitiously? That was the case with an anti-drug program that came about towards the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency that unintentional led to a bizarre situation where the government was effectively secretly paying TV networks for having anti-drug messages in their shows. Read on to see how it all went down!
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How Did Jon Polito Getting Angry Get His Character Killed on Homicide: Life on the Street?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: Jon Polito’s public complaints about the direction of Homicide: Life on the Street got his character killed off in an ignominious manner.

Homicide: Life on the Street debuted in 1993. Based on David Simon’s non-fiction book of roughly the same name (Simon’s book was called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, as he followed the Baltimore Homicide Department around for a year), the series was a critical smash hit. It is still remarkable the high level of quality that the show (particularly writers Tom Fontana and James Yoshimura and producer Barry Levinson in those early days) were able to achieve with Homicide on network television in the mid-1990s. Homicide would not look out of place on HBO in 2016, that’s how ahead of its time was (okay, the 1990s fashion would probably need to be updated a bit).

One area where the show was very faithful initially was in the cops who worked in Homicide. In real life, the mix tended to be older male white detectives and younger male black detectives. That’s what they did on the show, with Ned Beatty and Jon Polito playing two of the older cops on the show, Stan “Big Man” Bolander (based on one of the major characters in the Simon book) and Steve Crosetti, respectively…

The problem, however, was that NBC was not exactly a fan of this approach…
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Was Arnold Vinick Going to Win the Presidency on The West Wing Before John Spencer’s Untimely Death?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: Arnold Vinick was originally going to win the election until John Spencer died, and the producers decided they did not want Matt Santos to lose his running mate AND the election.

The West Wing was a critically acclaimed drama that ran for seven seasons from 1999 until 2006. For the vast majority of the series, the show was about the staff of President Josiah Bartlett (played by Martin Sheen) and the President himself.

The sixth and seventh seasons of the show, though, held the spotlight a bit more to the two men running to become the NEXT President of the United States (Bartlett, of course, still had plenty of plots on the show), Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits)

and

Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda)

Santos ended up choosing as his running mate Bartlett’s long-time Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry (played by John Spencer)…

John Spencer tragically passed away before the election storyline finished.

My pal Chad, wrote in with a rumor…

Arnold Vinick was originally going to win the presidency, but John Spencer’s death meant that Matt Santos would have lost both his running mate AND the election, and producers thought that would a bit too much to lay on the character, so they changed it to a Santos victory.

True?
Continue reading “Was Arnold Vinick Going to Win the Presidency on The West Wing Before John Spencer’s Untimely Death?”