Underrated TV Characters: How ER’s Jeanie Boulet Stole the Show

I’m currently watching Season 7 of ER, a long-running medical drama created by Jurassic Park‘s Michael Crichton, which aired on NBC for 15 seasons from 1994 to 2007. This is my first time watching the series, and it’s one of my favorite shows thanks to its stellar cast and engaging, fast-paced storylines. ER was ahead of its time as it highlighted social issues many other shows considered taboo at the time, including women’s rights, gender norms, racism in the workplace and in hiring practices, ableism, and critiques of the United States’ fraudulent healthcare system. But what good are these storylines if you don’t have a talented cast to convey the emotional and often heart-wrenching trials and tribulations inflicting the doctors, nurses, staff, and patients of the Chicago-based emergency room?

Many talented stars graced the screen during the show’s run, including George Clooney, Angela Bassett, Ming-Ya Wen, John Stamos, Julianna Margulies, Linda Cardellini, Alex Kingston, and CCH Pounder. There’s one actor whose presence I miss dearly from the show’s early seasons: Gloria Reuben, whose not only a producer, author, and singer but also performed backup vocals for Tina Turner.

ER -- Season 6 -- Pictured: Gloria Reuben as Jeanie Boulet -- Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

From seasons 1 through 6, Reuben played the kind and nurturing physician assistant Jeanie Boulet, initially a love interest for Eriq La Salle’s Dr. Peter Benton, though she quickly settles into her own and becomes a main character starting in Season 2. Jeanie’s quieter nature was a stark contrast to the gruff Benton, but the two characters began having an affair (Jeanie was unhappily married to a philandering husband) after Jeanie cared for Benton’s ailing mother. The personality differences between the two characters led to many onscreen clashes, though Benton eventually learns to accept Jeanie’s guidance. 

 Following her breakup with Benton, Jeanie began interacting with the other characters in the series, building key relationships with Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes), Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney), and Dr. Donald Anspaugh (John Aylward). Jeanie’s most dramatic storyline comes towards the end of Season 2 when her husband Al is admitted into the ER and diagnosed as HIV positive. Season 3 revealed Jeanie also tested positive, and she struggles to come to terms with her life-altering diagnosis and the stigma of being HIV positive, including from Benton, who questions if she should even be working at the ER due to her condition. She also struggles with being outed in front of her co-workers and how to navigate romance and attachments.

RELATED: ER: Why George Clooney’s Doug Ross Left the Series

In his book, Beside Manners: George Clooney and ER, author Sam Keenleyside notes [Jeanie’s] quietly reluctant decision not to go out with the friend of a patient hits just the right tone, registering not only her disappointment at having to pass up this opportunity, but also her realization that she may never be able to accept another. The counterpart to this scene, provided by Benton’s tantalizing encounter with his former girlfriend, Carla, drives home the pain of [Jeanie’s] situation very powerfully.”

Jeanie finds a staunch ally in Dr. Weaver, and together they develop a system of restrictions so she could continue treating patients. I think that’s easy to miss in the wake of the situation she finds herself in: Jeanie is a damn good physician, and her talents and strengths in the medical field help save lives. Later in the show, Jeanie helps Benton cope with the realization his son is deaf. She also becomes a part-time caregiver to Dr. Anspaugh’s son who’s battling B-cell lymphoma in Season 5 storyline that culminates with the boy’s tragic death. 

The cast of ER

You won’t often find Jeanie in “Top Ten Characters from ER” lists—in fact, some fans consider her entirely forgettable, which is a huge disservice to show and to Reuben, who brought a warm and light desperately needed for some of the show’s heavier storylines. Some have even called Jeanie “weak” for staying in an unhappy marriage, but there are so many layers and inner strengths within Jeanie that I don’t agree with their assessment. 

It’s true that throughout her time in the series, Jeanie seemed to navigate one terrible situation after the other, but she never lost her compassion. She fought tirelessly for her patients’ rights and she demonstrated a keen eye for detail. Her condition drew attention to AIDs within the Black community, particularly among Black, heterosexual women involved in long-term relationships. 

Gloria Reuben deeply moved me with her portrayal of Jeanie. Sometimes the quieter, kinder characters are my favorite. She brought so much dignity to the character, and I was genuinely sad when she left the show after Season 6. A few weeks ago I read the first few chapters of Reuben’s 2019 memoir, My Brother’s Keeper, in which she details her emotions after the deaths of both her brothers. Just like Jeanie, Reuben acknowledges her pain and tries to find her place in the world while bringing light and love to others.

Today Reuben is an activist for the HIV/Aids community. She’s also the president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an organization which protects everyone’s right to clean water. In March of 2022, she reunited with her ER co-star Eriq La Salle for the Hallmark film Second Chance at Love. She’s had notable roles in Mr. RobotSaints and Sinners, and Cloak & Dagger. I know Reuben returns as a guest star in Season 14 of ER, and I can’t wait to see her again when I get to that point in the show.

I think Jeanie Boulet is an underrated, groundbreaking character, one who shed light on a difficult and often stigmatized condition. She’s one of my low-key favorites from the series. I’m excited to see her return in Season 14, even if it is for one more episode.

Final Thoughts and Musings

@mack.the.muser

Gloria Reuben as Jeanie Boulet in ER. #ertvshow

♬ This Is Me Trying – Josh Rabenold

Gloria Reuben was promoted to the main cast in Season 2, on November 2nd, 1995—a year after I was born! That’s it….that’s the explanation for why I love this character so much.

For all the bad news she had to deal with on the show, the moments I remember most of Jeanie are the times she spent laughing with Kerry Weaver, quietly singing to herself in the shower, and sitting in a Church as she takes a moment to be grateful for her life. 

Who’s your favorite character from ER? Let me know in the comments. For all things pop culture, check out my website. Stay nerdy!

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