On Nov. 9, 1982, "St. Elsewhere" was in its second episode and busily stirring the dramatic pot. In one room of St. Eligius, the worn, old hospital called Elsewhere, a beleaguered institution on the bottom rung of Boston's famed medical establishment, lay a wounded terrorist named Rhinehart (Tim Robbins in the early stages of his career).
In another room, a young woman was dying, a victim of the terrorist's bomb, anguished over by her husband, McAllister (Jack Bannon).On other floors in that early episode, one of eight hourlong shows in a new boxed set of "St. Elsewhere" from New Video, several story lines were taking shape in the layered, complex manner of the "work-place family" series, a genre introduced a season earlier by Steven Bochco in the cop series "Hill Street Blues" and carried on today in shows like "NYPD Blue" and the direct heir of "St. Elsewhere," top-rated "ER."
In one strand of the tale, a psychiatrist worked with a patient who thought she was a bird ("I see we're Tweetie today").
In another, the peppery, brusque Dr. Mark Craig (William Daniels), Eligius' totally assured chief surgeon, delivered bad news and good news to a pudgy patient suffering from chest pains. With his arteries 94 percent clogged, the fellow was a walking dead man.
On the bright side, Craig breezily announced that he was about to save him with a triple bypass. The man had less than an hour to notify relatives and secure permissions.
The operation was a success, but two episodes later the bombing victim died. McAllister sought out the terrorist in the hospital and shot him dead - a shocking development in those pre-"ER" days. On most shows that would have been that, more or less, but in March 1986, more than three seasons later, a St. Eligius doctor named Jack Morrison (David Morse) was doing volunteer work in a prison when he encountered McAllister, who was serving time for killing Rhinehart.
During a riot, McAllister, no longer the genteel mourner he was seasons earlier, helped hold Morrison down while he was raped by another prisoner.
The New Video series is drawn from all six seasons of "St. Elsewhere" (1982-88). The prison episode isn't included, but it is alluded to, and fans of the show are likely to remember the McAllister business, from 1982 and later in 1986, very well.
"You were asked to remember," said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and film at Syracuse University and director of its Center for Popular Television. "Sometimes you'd get a tiny bit of dialogue in season one that would have a reference to it in season four. You had to be a careful watcher."
In his book "Television's Second Golden Age: From `Hill Street Blues' to `ER' ", he writes extensively about "St. Elsewhere." Television, he explained in an inter-view, is the one medium that can keep a story going without end, and with its ensemble cast and myriad interwoven plot lines developed by writers who remained with the show year after year.
"St. Elsewhere" specialized in recurring elements.
"It taught people how to watch good complicated television," Thomp-son said. Primarily, the show is remembered for the sophistication and irreverence of its storytelling and the breed of viewer attracted by that kind of writing.
During the first season many mainstream viewers were put off by the less than idealized view of medicine. Ratings were poor enough to encourage the show's principals to look for other work in anticipation of cancellation.
But then came a reprieve. Moving away from the brain candy on the networks, cable television was venturing into stronger material. In light of emerging competition, NBC decided that there might be room after all for a category of headier show that appealed to a smaller, smarter audience (and a prosperous one to boot).
"St. Elsewhere" got its second season and, with a solid core of devoted viewers, four more.
"Once we took the ratings out of the mix, it freed us to be as adventurous as we wanted to be," said Bruce Paltrow, who produced the show with Mark Tinker. "We weren't obligated to put on beauty queens or have happy endings."
Television's first AIDS story appeared on "St. Elsewhere." People died. And nearly died.
In a 1986 episode that's included in the New Video series, Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel) is accidentally shot in the emergency room by an irate wife gunning for her philandering husband. Struck in the heart, Fiscus both lies on the floor and, in a near-death experience, views himself being frantically attended to through the emer-gency room window.
Later he goes to hell, where he meets former St. Eligius patients (one of whom dropped dead during his stand-up comedy routine and another who dived off the hospital's roof), and to heaven, which is a lawnful of elegant people partying in front of a mansion that looks like the White House. There he has a chat with God, who is Fiscus' double and has a "St. Elsewhere" kind of outlook. "The world is so complex," says God, "I'm lucky even to get my mail."