In 1996, ER was the number one rated show on TV. Season 3 didn’t dip below 30 million viewers, making the series the crown jewel in NBC’s illustrious Thursday night “Must See TV” line-up. George Clooney, balancing TV stardom with a burgeoning movie career, was the show's big draw as the troubled but charming Dr. Doug Ross, but guest-starring on ER was a huge break, and a recurring role (and the exposure it provided) made more than a few careers.
Rewatching old episodes of ER these many years later turns into a fun game of spotting actors who went on to major stardom, including Lucy Liu, Chris Pine, Dakota Fanning, and Zac Efron. By the time Kirsten Dunst landed on the show, she was already a seasoned actress and a recognizable face. In 1994, the same year ER debuted, she delivered a breakout performance at the age of 11, opposite Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire, making headlines for kissing Pitt (something she is creepily still asked about to this day). This was followed by tamer (though no less memorable) fare, including Little Women and Jumanji.
First appearing in the Season 3 Halloween episode, “Old Ghosts,” Dunst plays Charlie, a troubled teen runaway attempting to scrape by on her wits and her body. She first crosses paths with Doug Ross while he's working as part of a community health initiative, stumbling into the mobile vehicle with a knife in her stomach that is actually part of a Halloween prank. Doug is bad at relationships with women, but great at playing guardian angel to those who don’t have much. He is a classic self-loather who can’t help but go out of his way to help others. 14-year-old Charlie taps into this character trait, and even in this brief Halloween interaction, they strike up a rapport.
Dunst appears in six episodes across Season 3, double the amount of a typical guest star arc. Her first couple of appearances are brief, in which she jokingly calls him “old man” and gets him to bend the rules, a classic Dr. Doug Ross maneuver. He is the patron saint of lost causes, in part because it's how he views himself. Doug has cleaned up his act by this point in the series, he’s in therapy and no longer sleeping around. His relationship with Carol (Julianna Margulies) is platonic with undertones of intimate flirtation (seriously, their chemistry is God-tier levels). Carol is an active participant in Charlie’s arc, but Doug very much takes the lead, and the chemistry between Clooney and Dunst is electric. Even at this young age, she is disarming and can switch from butter-wouldn’t-melt cool to full meltdown in the blink of an eye.
The arc comes to a head in the Christmas episode, which is of course the natural time of year for sentimental drama to take place on TV. As it's set in Chicago, the weather is particularly cold, and Doug’s bleeding heart gets utilized in the most festive way. By doing something good — in this case, bringing her friend’s very sick baby to the hospital, where the authorities get involved — Charlie gets kicked out of the place where she was staying. She steals Doug's wallet after he pays for lunch, which is how she finds out where he lives. Doug knows it would be a very bad look if he let her stay at his house, but sinced it's Christmas Eve, the homeless shelters are full. His last resort is Carol, who is playing host to her extended family. As with her ex, she is easily persuaded to take the troubled teen in for the night. A Christmas miracle!
But a warm and fuzzy vibe can only last for so long — this is ER after all — and in the following episode, a wasted Charlie returns asking for money. All trust has been destroyed after she steals Carol’s mother’s silverware, and Doug has had enough. This leads to accusations of Doug being a molester, which he pretty much rolls his eyes at. There are times to help and times to withdraw, he figures. However, Charlie returns later as a patient. She has been beaten so badly that her arm is broken and her face is barely recognizable. A cursory examination suggests she has been raped, which Charlie later confirms. Again, Dunst portrays the extremes, going from brash teen rebel to a scared child when she answers Doug’s difficult questions. He calls her “kiddo” and reassures her that everything will be okay.
Charlie sees Doug as her savior, but he can only do so much in his position as her doctor; he cannot be her legal guardian. This goes over as well as can be expected, and Charlie doesn’t make another appearance until the Season 3 finale when she is found covered in vomit facedown in the park. Her stomach is pumped and meth, coke, and heroin are all found in her toxicology screening. “Charlie says a lot of things” is Doug’s response to being told that she accused her foster parent of molesting her. She isn’t magically fixed because Doug tried to help her, and in fact, the issues she had when Doug first met her seem to have only escalated.
A function of the guest arc is to support the main character’s storyline, so Doug’s inability to save the teen is less about Charlie and more about him realizing his limits as a physician. Regardless of Dunst being there in service to Clooney’s arc, the young actress showed versatility and nuance in the role, revealing a duality that would end up serving her well in other teen roles such as Bring it On’s bubbly cheerleader and The Virgin Suicides' unknowable, ennui-laden girl next door. It's arguably why she remains one of the most fascinating actresses of her generation.
Not only was ER at its ratings peak when Dunst appeared, but this was also the season with one of the flashiest guest star episodes. Sporting his Life Less Ordinary hair, Ewan McGregor (who was also on his way up), appeared in an event episode that took place outside the hospital, as Carol gets caught up in a robbery-gone-wrong. McGregor discussed the experience in a 2017 interview, explaining “I was a big fan of that show, and I asked to be on it.” Like Dunst, McGregor also made his return to television with a lead role in Fargo.
The television landscape has changed dramatically since the days of NBC’s dominant “Must See TV” lineup. There are few (if any) shows that can as routinely offer young actors the kind of high exposure, meaty roles that Dunst enjoyed in her multi-episode ER arc. In it, she demonstrated an uncanny ability to navigate heavy material with lighter moments, which would become a hallmark of her now mult-decade career. Now Dunst is back in the George Clooney-produced On Becoming God in Central Florida and television is better for it.
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Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.