Being an adult? Totally overrated. I mean seriously, don’t be fooled by all the hot shoes and the great sex and the no parents anywhere telling you what to do. Adulthood is responsibility.
—Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), “Shake Your Groove Thing”
I wanted these characters to be characters who liked what they did and were unapologetic about it. It’s not “Oh, she’s powerful, but she’s deeply hurt inside.”
—Shonda Rhimes, Chicago Tribune (2 October 2005)
Grey’s Anatomy‘s success in its post-Desperate Housewives time slot makes perfect sense. After each tease-filled Desperate hour, viewers can’t help yearning for actual story, and they can find several of these each week in Grey’s Anatomy. Revolving around a handful of surgical interns and their superiors at Seattle Grace Hospital, the series has emerged as a quality guilty pleasure and, in its way, a fine successor to that recent Sunday night must, Sex and the City.
I realize comparisons to Sex (most often of the “doesn’t measure up” variety) have been everywhere this fall, thanks to two new shows built around female foursomes, namely, Related and Hot Properties, but those series showed their imitation and business calculation right out of the gate. Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes is doing her own soapy thing, such that the series only resembles Sex in its depiction of complicated, ambitious women defined by their work and friendships rather than their sex partners.
The earnest, oblique narrator, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), is a Carrie type. Opinionated, but with soft edges, she found her own Mr. Big—and viewers found a new dreamboat—in Patrick Dempsey’s Dr. Derek Shepherd, the neurosurgeon she slept with before and after she found out he was her supervisor. Her closest confidante is the series’ Miranda, abrupt, unsentimental Cristina (Sandra Oh, Emmy-nominated for the role), and their camaraderie and teasing are equally fun (“Meredith, leave the sarcasm up to me. Really, it doesn’t suit you.”). “I like the fact that Cristina and Meredith have this friendship, and Cristina is a person who is very competitive—but she’s not incapable of having a friendship with another woman,” Rhimes told the Chicago Tribune.
No, she’s not, but the pair’s closeness has left Izzie (Katherine Heigl) feeling like the odd woman out. “A lot of the time it feels like you and Cristina are kinda over there and I’m here,” she told Meredith in the episode “Make Me Lose Control.” Dipping into realism, the series let Meredith “reach out” by changing the subject rather than having her respond with apology or assurance. The implicit lesson: big girls don’t always talk their feelings to death.
Confession and communication aren’t the norm at Seattle Grace. Instead, the hospital crew all harbor secrets: Shepherd has an estranged wife; Cristina was pregnant with Dr. Burke’s (Isaiah Washington) baby; Meredith’s mother (once a surgeon at the hospital) has Alzheimer’s disease; fellow intern George (the delightful T.R. Walsh) harbors a crush on Meredith, and so on. Hidden truths—i.e., attempting to maintain some control of your life, your information—is a recurring theme. “Surgeons are control freaks,” Meredith tells us. They’re good with a scalpel, but a little ragged when dealing with the real-life stuff.
As good as these off-moments among the female leads are, the series would wear thin without its strong remaining cast. As in all well-plotted soaps, Seattle Grace proves to be a small world. The chief of surgery (James Pickens Jr.) has history with Burke, Shepherd, and Ellis Grey. More salacious, half the doctors and nurses seem to be sleeping with each other, a truth revealed when they lined up to be tested after an outbreak of “the syph.”
So, like I said: soap opera. As the scene of all these interpersonal fireworks is a hospital, patients do share the screen. But they’re wheeled in as excuses to get the leads into the OR or as metaphors for something Meredith and her newbie cohorts need to learn. In ““Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”, a young girl sought surgery to rectify a blushing disorder. Intern Alex Karev (Justin Chambers as the smooth-talking asshole with buried pain) thought it crazy to risk major complications just to prevent her face from turning magenta, until she put it in terms he—and all the doctors—could understand. “I can’t get mad, I can’t be happy. I can’t feel anything without the whole world knowing. I can’t have a secret. Can you imagine living that way your entire life?” Indeed, Alex could not.