Your ears didn’t deceive you. In the clip above, Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel) takes a verbal walk down Memory Lane as his residency at St. Eligius comes to a close in the final episode of St. Elsewhere’s six-year run and says it lasted “three years.” In the series’ original airing, I didn’t catch on immediately that each season only represented about six months and it took two seasons to complete a year. Don’t follow that timeline too closely—contradictions abound. Some units of measure adhere to that three year span—Norman Lloyd’s Dr. Daniel Auschlander began the series in 1982 at the age of 72 and, in the final episode that aired May 25, 1988, Auschlander tells Luther (Eric Laneuville) that he’s 75. Despite the fact that St. Elsewhere brought a new level of realism to the medical drama on TV, the show’s other elements weren’t bound by those same rules of logic and continuity. Tom Fontana and John Masius, the show’s longest-running writer-producers, penned an ending during that sixth season much different than the one viewers ended up seeing (and that the world still debates to this day). That unfilmed ending leaped 25 years into the future—to 2013—with Auschlander, dying of liver cancer since the show’s debut Oct. 26, 1982, still alive at 101. I’ll let readers work out the logical flaws in that math. (More on that ending in Part 3. I know we said a two-part series, but we changed our minds.) On the other hand, I don’t recall the first season explicitly stating 1982 was its starting point—perhaps St. Elsewhere took place in the future from the get-go. Certainly in many respects, the series often was ahead of its time.
Even with the decision to continue this tribute in two more parts instead of one, much ground remains to be covered. Channing Gibson began as a freelance writer on St. Elsewhere with his writing partner Charles H. “Chic” Eglee in the second season before they joined the staff as story editors with John Tinker, younger brother of producer Mark Tinker, the show’s co-developer, in the fourth season. When Masius and Fontana stepped down from their producing posts in the sixth season (though Fontana remained a “creative consultant”), the producing reins were handed to Gibson and the younger Tinker. (Eglee departed the show in 1986 to work on Moonlighting.) During my conversation with Gibson, he mentioned a formula that guided most installments. “St. Elsewhere always broke down, in almost every episode except for the stand-alone episodes . . . (into) four storytelling elements,” Gibson told me. “There was always a universal theme . . . which dealt with who we are as people, what life is about, that sort of thing. There was always a personal story that picked up on the thread of one of the characters and their personal lives and delved into it more deeply than we might get in an average episode. There was always a medical story, which was absolutely about medicine in the classic style, whether it’s Dr. Kildare or any other story, any other good medical show. Then there was always the humorous story. We built every show to have those four elements in them. At the same time, you’re passing people through and keeping the plates spinning on whatever they’re about.”
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