The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Television Collision: Going Back to Grey’s Beginnings

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageSummer is an odd time to be a TV columnist. Yeah, there are a plethora of summer shows out there and a lot of them are really good to varying degrees (Mad Men, True Blood, Boston Med, Burn Notice…), but only we TV critics and columnist really watch these shows and read each others’ columns about them, so maybe I will forgo talking about yet another summer show and go back to one that a lot of people love. Or at least used to love: Grey’s Anatomy.

In between my weekly dose of So You Think You Can Dance (that show frigging BLOWS MY MIND every single week, I just love dance and Travis Wall and Cat Deeley and Mia Michaels and Kent) and the overdose of Australian drama lately (read about it here), I have also started to re-view Grey’s Anatomy and so a review in retrospective is in order.

Firstly, I have no idea why I dug out GA, I just had a sudden flash that went “I can’t wait for all the fall shows to be back… although a lot of them have started to go downhill lately (House, Bones, Grey’s Anatomy)… but they used to be good… or do I just remember that wrong?… was Grey’s ever really actually good?”
And so, I popped in the DVDs — for the record, I am not very selective when it comes to which shows I buy on DVD, I am a completist, I want to have them all, just so I have a complete catalog of reference — and tried to see if GA was ever actually a good show instead of goofy drama with characters we can’t relate to anymore.

Now, I am not saying everything about GA these days is bad. I immensely enjoy Kevin McKidd and his character Owen Hunt in combination with Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang. But then again, I have always enjoyed Cristina. A lot more than I ever enjoyed Meredith, even though technically I have a lot in common with the dark and twisty Grey sister. You can read most of my quibbles with GA in this article I wrote in the beginning of 2009. Most of those issues have remained the same.
I wasn’t overly sad over Izzie’s departure, her arc as a character was complete for me even already before she got cancer and personally I would rather see a character leave when their story is told than stick around and be bent out of shape.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the radical way George was written out, because I am a believer in the Whedon theory that it has to hurt when a character leaves, because only then does it mean we cared about the character.

ImageSo there are a couple of things GA has gotten right. But for what it’s worth, there are also a lot of things it has gotten wrong. Part of this is nobody’s fault though, because the longer a show runs, the harder it becomes to keep it fresh and exciting. The more dramatic things happen on a drama show, the less realistic it becomes. We have to rely on our suspension of disbelief, because in reality, there is no way any one person stays sane after living through being abandoned by their father, seeing their mother deteriorate and die of Alzheimer’s, holding a bomb inside a patient’s body and seeing it subsequently blowing up the bomb squad guys, sleeping with virtually every friend of the opposite sex they have, technically dying two minutes, losing the love of their live to another person only to win them back and having a miscarriage. (This is vaguely all stuff that happened to Meredith and I am sure I left out some biggies.)

It’s the nature of long-running dramas that eventually the characters become catalysts for all the possible things a person could theoretically go through in a lifetime. As such, the characters of drama shows almost always become “unrealistic” and “unbelievable” after a while, unless handled with utter care. Every event, every emotion, is necessarily heightened in any art form and presented at its extreme, because that is the easiest way it can elicit emotion. (Of course, there is the other school of thought that presents the ordinary and presents it in a slow pace and through that elicits sometimes even stronger and more lasting reactions in the viewer, but that is another argument altogether.)

Given this small excursion, I don’t blame GA for the entirety of the fallout it has had to deal with in the past couple of seasons. The shine of the new wore off and it got down to the nitty and gritty of it. Unfortunately, GA didn’t hold up as well as one might have hoped. Although, compared to its spin-off show Private Practice, GA is still TV gold.
The problem with GA was that eventually there were too many characters running around battling for screen time. If a character isn’t given enough time with the audience, the audience will have a hard time bonding with that character and so the level of us “caring” sunk lower and lower.

A TV show simply should not rely on the audience willingly accepting established clichés and stereotypes if it wants to stay relevant and fresh. For example, you cannot expect your audience to “get” that two characters are in love because you give them a few heavy looks to share. There has to be more to it. You have to give the characters back stories and personalities which make it believable that these characters would fall in love (note: not “logical”, but “believable”.)

I find that GA in recent seasons relied too much on stereotypes and clichés established by an unnamed number of drama shows that preceded GA. As the audience, we could pretty much guess what would happen next (see Izzie’s brain tumor) and it is always bad when you viewer can anticipate the events that are about to follow. As a show creator, you have to be one step ahead, because you always know more than your audience, about the characters, their back story and their future. I’d say, only half of what a decent writer knows about a character can actually be put into a script. (To be more precise, I am sure Shonda Rhimes knows the exact birthday and place of birth of every one of her characters, without it ever having a big place on the show.)

Getting back to my original question: was GA ever really a good show? Kinda, yeah. I still maintain that Ellen Pompeo was a complete miscast for the role of Meredith, given how the other characters react to her in the first season and how she is established (gorgeous, beautiful, incredibly talented but guarded and yet very caring), but in other instances the casting was perfectly spot on (Sandra Oh, Chandra Wilson, even Patrick Dempsey and Justin Chambers as well as T.R. Knight for as long as George was still lovable, mainly in Seasons 1 and 2).

The nonchalance of the surgical interns in the face of blood and gore was refreshing to see in Season 1 and also strikes me as very believable. Surgeons have to be a special kind of people, so their absurd reactions and quips in the face of impossible injuries was amusing in a very dark and twisted way. I wish more of that was still around and the GA surgeons would stop getting so involved with a lot of their patients. It’s what makes House so great, he basically never really cares about the individual person. It’s appalling sometimes, but so much more healthy for a doctor’s psyche in the long run.


He’s not actually there. He’s dead.

The relationships in GA at the beginning were given more room to grow and shift and settle in (at least for the most part). The characters made choices that weren’t always understandable, to me personally, but within their individual characters they made sense. And at least sometimes it made you wonder about the ethical dilemmas in medicine, within a friendship, within a relationship. But even these decisions were given time. Izzie had a few episodes to think about whether or not she could be a surgeon again after Denny. Cristina suffered through helping Burke in every single of his surgeries and the guilt she felt about it when he had a tremor in his hand for almost half a season until she broke and told the Chief.

As much as time wore the shine off Grey’s Anatomy, the makers seemed to be intent on wearing it off even faster lately when they took time away from their characters. Everything felt like it was happening in warp-speed and as a result it became blurry in the viewer’s memory. Not to mention the ludicrous stories that were introduced, simply because a drama show always has to top itself (the Denny ghost story is only the pinnacle of this).

To close I can say that I still find the first three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy to be recommended viewing for anyone who has a fascination with the medical profession, dark humor, sarcasm and unashamed tear-jerking. Yes, I will admit, GA makes me cry. A lot. However, that’s no feat to accomplish, I cry a lot. Because of TV, too. I’m a girl, what can I say?  The characters, before they became their own decal, interacted well with each other, especially when they were still trying to figure each other out, and re-living the glory of “The Nazi” Bailey is a special treat.

So, if you have some time to waste, go back to the first seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and remember a time when McDreamy and McSteamy were all we could McTalk about.