The second we walk through the hospital doors, my palms start to sweat. Then I see the table stacked high with boxes of alcohol swabs, and then the rubber glove dispensers hanging from the walls, and then the blue-cloth-covered gurneys, and I swear my heart skips a beat. "This is definitely County General," someone says. And it is: I'm on the set of ER, hearing about the show's 15th and final season as part of the TCA press tour. But I might as well be in a real hospital, considering how anxious and uncomfortable I feel.
It's a testament to the show's property master — but also more than a little creepy — that the County General set on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank feels exactly like a somewhat run-down county hospital in the Midwest. The floor tile is all pink linoleum; the walls and blinds are pale blue and seafoam green. The ceiling is low (low enough to make me feel claustrophobic, anyway), the plastic chairs in the waiting room look just as hard and unforgiving as real hospital chairs, and even the lighting tiles above my head are yellowed and flickering convincingly with age.
After 15 years of filming on the set, "it doesn't take a lot to make it look like crap," says Christopher Chulack, one of the show's executive producers, as a heart monitor flashes in the background and a half-filled bag of saline dangles from an IV pole over his shoulder. "It's worn out pretty good. We put a lot of effort into that — we take pride in keeping it aged."
To hear more about what County General looks like up close, and to see pictures of the ER cast from the past 14 years, just
The County General world we see on TV, from the sliding curtains between the hospital beds to the long hallway that countless residents have urgently pushed gurneys through, is an exact replica of the hospital in East LA where John Wells and his crew shot the ER pilot back in 1994. When the pilot became a series, everything from that hospital had to be matched exactly on the set, from the color of the linens to the placement of the beds. (The only change: The hallways are two feet wider for easier filming.) And, except for the introduction of some new medical equipment (slowly — since it's a county hospital, "we get to pick up the technology two or three years after it comes into the marketplace," Wells says), it's stayed that way ever since.
Up close, it's insanely detailed, from the colorful stickers on the individual containers holding various medical implements to the post-it notes hanging from the big, translucent case board that features prominently in so many episodes. (One reads "CBC" — perhaps a reminder for some actor who somehow doesn't have the hang of yelling "CBC, chem 7, STAT!!" by now?) I spy a few members of the press team trying out the hospital beds, but no way am I going anywhere near them; it's a short leap from there to Dr. Tony Gates shooting me up with a syringe full of something. (Now, if you could get Clooney . . . )
What's going to happen to all the medical equipment when the show wraps up its run this coming season?
"I'm opening up my own clinic over in East LA, behind the laundromat," quips property master Rick Kerns. "You want an ultrasound?"
Does it work?
"Sure!" he replies, grinning. I feel my heart skip again.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Television