"Tell him Doug Ross said hi." -Doug RossHeh.
The rumors had leaked enough by now that tonight would be the grand return of George Clooney to "ER" for this swan song season. But surprise or no surprise, it was damn good to see Doug again working with Carol, and to see Benton giving Carter a hard time. I've mostly come to grips with the characters and pace and tone of latter-era "ER," but the new people have never come close to gaining my loyalty and affection the way that wonderful original cast did.
I know all the chatter tomorrow's going to be about Clooney and Julianna Margulies, and understandably so. He's a big flippin' movie star, and Doug and Carol are arguably the most popular characters in "ER" history. And I liked them too and will get to them in a minute. But as Peter Benton was always my favorite character, and the Benton/Carter duo my favorite relationship, the aspect of "Old Times" that really fueled my nostalgic fires was that reunion. It was just so cool to see Peter, older and wiser and more careful -- the guy from the pilot would have bristled at being asked to run through a checklist, but I totally see him doing it here, especially with his old protege's life at risk -- and yet still ready and eager to hassle Carter because he can. Eriq La Salle doesn't act that much anymore, but he slipped back into character -- and he and Noah Wyle slipped back into their old rhythms -- like it had only been five minutes since he left.
Because Clooney's so famous now, the Doug and Carol portion of the episode could have easily slipped out of the reality of the show, especially with Clooney working alongside Susan Sarandon. (Ernest Borgnine, our third Oscar winner of the night, had to content himself with working with John Stamos and Shiri Appleby.) But Clooney's a very good actor as well as a charismatic star, and the storyline was done in such a low-key fashion that it never felt like the return of the conquering hero. Slip him into a pair of scrubs, put his hair back into the old caesar cut, and he's Doug. Easy.
What I really appreciated about the organ donation storyline was how little the various characters knew anything of the larger picture. Nobody knew that the kidney was going to Carter -- not even Sam, who dropped it off at Northwestern -- and during the brief scene where Doug tried to find common ground with Sam and Neela, it worked that most of the people he knew were long gone from County. I think it would have rang false if they sat around and swapped Kerry Weaver stories, or if Carol came in and bonded with Sam (who has assumed the role Carol used to play on the show, like it or not). The only way the coincidence of Doug and Carol saving Carter's life works is if it's a total coincidence, and if nobody finds out about it, and it felt less cheesey and more natural for Doug to come across to Neela and Sam as some guy who worked at County so long ago that they barely know any of the same doctors.
Not an all-time episode, by any means, but it did the job it was meant to do. It gave us one final glimpse of the royal couple of "ER," still doing their jobs well. (Doug walking the Sarandon character into realizing that her grandson would want his organs to be donated was a nice bit of writing by John Wells, who got hands-on again to also direct this one.) It put Carter and Benton together again (and caught us up that Benton's son is a teenager and he's still with the mercifully-absent Cleo). And at the same time, it paid service to the current characters by having Doug and Carol also aid in saving the mom's life.
What did everybody else think?