James Foley takes a week off from classic boxing to look back on classic TV, and the way it portrayed boxing.
Everyone has a favorite show. The Wire and The Sopranos are probably the two I hear most often when people throw out picks for the greatest television series of all time. For me, there was never any doubt. The 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere was the greatest dramatic television series ever aired. Innovative, heartbreaking, hysterical, and mind-blowing all at once, this was the zenith of episodic storytelling. Sadly, while you can pick up the complete series of Small Wonder, Mr. Belvedere, and Charles in Charge on DVD, Elsewhere was relegated to a lonely season one release more than five years ago with a promise of more to come that remains unfulfilled. No disrespect to Belvedere and Vicky, but something about that is seriously fucked.
Elsewhere has a pretty clear trajectory. The first season was competent, if formulaic. The middle years, seasons two, three and four, took the show to unparalleled creative heights. The landmark episode "Time Heals" in the middle of season four was the beginning of the end. The last two seasons devolved into a sad caricature of the preceding ones: the humor wasn't dark or biting, it was cheap and corny. The tense drama of the early seasons just wasn't there. Half the characters had been put through the ringer already. Take Dr. Morrison, played by David Morse, for example. In the first four seasons, his wife died, his best friend turned out to be a rapist, and his son was kidnapped. How much misfortune could possibly befall one man? Well, in season five, he was gang-raped in prison while doing community outreach. What had once been poignant was getting stale and ridiculous.
The one character who was always compelling from beginning to end was Dr. Mark Craig, portrayed superbly by Williams Daniels. He may be best known to younger audiences as Mr. Feeney on Boy Meets World, but the decade prior to that he was a five-time Emmy nominee and two-time winner for Best Actor. Craig, on the surface, was an egomaniacal bigot with a boorish tendency of belittling his subordinates. As the show went on, he was revealed to be a complicated man battling his own insecurities who generally did the right thing when push came to shove.
The sell-by date had long since passed by the time the season six episode "Weigh In, Weigh Out" came along, and indeed most of it is muddled by the same inconsistencies that made the final seasons so excruciating. But the episode does offer an interesting boxing sub-plot, centered on Dr. Craig, once a decorated amateur in college.
At the age of 56, Craig calls in a favor to Hirschfeld, the owner of a local boxing gym whose brother underwent an operation at the hospital. Craig wants to get in the ring and spar on the anniversary of his father's death. Hirschfeld's not sure it's such a great idea. Craig reassures him, "Don't forget, I was a boxer at Penn...the champ, actually. I know my way around the ring...I was a tiger!"
The doctor sums up the sweet science: "Two men square off. If one connects just right, the other loses."
He explains that his father pushed him into boxing and delivers a succinct and moving monologue:
"He wanted me to start boxing like he had. The greatest sport in town. Every muscle is tested. You had to have agility, coordination. They teach you to take a punch, follow form. Hands, eyes, reasoning, all pulling together, just like in the operating room. And the danger."
Hirschfeld agrees to be the sparring partner. He wraps up Dr. Craig's hands and laces his gloves, but the doctor is typically unsatisfied with the imperfect efforts of others:
"You call these laces tight?! If the sutures I put in your brother's chest were this slack, he'd be pushing up crocuses in Mt. Auburn cemetery. Again, Hirschfeld!"
The episode devolves into an overwrought, melodramatic mess from there. In the ring, Hirschfeld isn't giving him much of a fight, just humoring his whim, playing defense. Craig responds with a blatant low-blow that ignites his opponent. Hirschfeld knocks him down with a thunderous right hand. A younger guy acting as referee literally scrapes Craig off the mat. He wants to continue. Hirschfeld batters the hell out of Craig, knocking him from pillar to post. All hope of recapturing the old glory seems lost until Craig's wife shows up to cheer him on. She makes a fist of support and the doctor rallies with a classic one-two, lead right hand-left hook to knock Hirschfeld out cold. Craig crumples to a bloody heap himself in a staggering moment of Rocky-esque preposterousness.
Tom Fontana co-wrote the episode and he would come back to boxing for a major, season-long plot arc on his HBO series Oz. The episode is memorable for Craig's very artful speech with the surgery metaphor and the notion of this very upper-crust New Englander reminiscing on boxing as essential character building. Boxing was once a required sport at Harvard. It was a manly virtue to be accomplished in the noble science. These days...well, it's not quite looked at that way.