Every once in a while, popular culture scores a home run, producing something truly artistic, memorable, and moving.
For me, one such instance was an episode of ER, Time of Death. It was the sixth episode of Season 11 and first aired on November 11, 2004. Until yesterday I had only seen Time of Death that one time, but it had stuck in my memory and haunted me for all those nearly 18 years.
After the watching the episode again, it hit me with the same punch it delivered back in 2004. What makes Time of Death so powerful? I’ll try to talk about it without giving too much away.
First, the acting. It’s terrific. Ray Liotta plays Charlie Metcalf, a down-and-out, alcoholic ex-con who comes into the ER with a lot of attitude complaining of a stomach ache. At first he appears to be a dangerous jerk, but as the episode unfolds ands condition worsens, you come to understand how he wound up the way he is, and feel nothing but sympathy. It’s a remarkable job of acting, to bring about this transformation and change your perception the character without a single false move. The ER regulars are up to the task of supporting Liotta’s epic performance, particularly Goren Visnjik as Luka Kovac, whose cold, clinical, yet somehow compassionate performance provides realism and a much needed dose of emotional calm during the course of Metcalf’s treatment; and also Mekhi Phifer as the brash Gregory Pratt, who experiences a remarkable transformation of his own as a result of his interaction with Metcalf.
Second, the direction and writing. The episode, unusual or possibly unique for ER, is presented in real time, covering the 44 minutes of Metcalf’s treatment. The pacing in itself brings a sense of tension, a ticking clock as his condition worsens and worsens. All you can feel for 44 solid minutes is the tightening of the noose, the sense of impending doom. And even though the ticking clock is interrupted from time to time by Metacalf’s nightmarish hallucinations, these diversions somehow only add to the tension. Adding yet more tension is the frequent use of close-ups and extreme close-ups. You are right on top of the doctors as they perform painful and unpleasant procedures on Metcalf — Liotta’s reactions are completely believable and at times excruciating to watch. The reactions of the ER staff to unfolding events are similarly up close and personal. The personal tragedy of Charlie Metcalf is poignant in the extreme, as well as being something any viewer can relate to.
As Metcalf observes, a person’s entire life can turn on a dime.
Ray Liotta passed away this year, too young at the age of 67. What a marvelous actor he was. Probably best known for playing gangsters, brutal cops, and other rough-around-the edges characters, he was perfect for Metcalf in that respect, but added to this performance expressions of humanity, vulnerability, courage, despair, and hope that, well, in my case, I can never forget.
(Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons)