In the first pages Meredith gets to have fun, this little interaction with a guy that lets her be sexy and flirty, then be the boss and throw him out. Then she gets to go be smart and save other people’s lives. From a female perspective, you just don’t get that many opportunities to play that wide a range in one show.
—Ellen Pompeo, Zap2it (26 March 2005)
Don’t let the scrubs and paddles fool you. Grey’s Anatomy, which scored the second-biggest drama series premiere audience of the season in its 27 March debut, is a soap, not a hospital procedural. Creator Shonda Rhimes (who penned Britney Spears’ Crossroads) makes this clear from the start, as the pilot opens with Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) waking naked but not alone on the den floor of her mother’s vacant home. She’s late for her first day of work, and she can’t remember the name of the man (Patrick Dempsey) who just woke bare-ass-up beside her. “Derek,” he says, proffering a handshake and a smile that says he’s ready for another go. “Goodbye, Derek,” she grins, rushing off to the shower.
Next stop: Seattle Grace Hospital. Meredith slips in just in time for chief of surgery Richard Webber’s (James Pickens, Jr.) dispassionate welcome to the interns. “The seven years you spend here as a surgical resident will be the best and worst of your life,” he says. “Look around you. Say hello to your competition.” The camera swirls around George (T.R. Walsh), Cristina (Sandra Oh), Alex (Justin Chambers), Izzie (Katherine Heigl), and Meredith, all sneaking and deflecting glances even as Webber paints their future by the numbers: “Eight of you will switch to an easier specialty. Five of you will crack under the pressure. Two of you will be asked to leave. This is your starting line. This is your arena. How well you play. That’s up to you.”
Melodramatic? Sure, but in a rousing, manipulating, on-with-the-show kind of way. This is television, not a trip to the doctor, after all. Let’s have some fun.
And Grey’s Anatomy provides it (so long as you check any real-life medical knowledge at the door). You can play connect-the-medical-plots (who couldn’t know the patient’s a goner when George promises he’ll be fine?) or wonder, briefly, how Meredith’s one-night stand will re-enter her life (Dr. Derek Shepherd is a supervising surgeon). Let other series endeavor to surprise even the savviest viewers; Rhimes is more interested in those perennials of workplace drama: ambition and lust.
Though they’re a minority in their class (“Only six women out of 20,” Meredith is quick to notice), girls are front and center. Meredith, Cristina, and Izzie (along with soft-hearted, bumbling George) will suffer under Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), a short, no-nonsense senior resident nicknamed “the Nazi.” Of the three, Izzie is the most unsure (as if sensing the easy kill, Bailey assigns her a series of rectal exams), while Cristina is icily ambitious. First in her class at Stanford, she likens surgery to the Marines in its hardcore appeal.
Meredith oscillates between them on the confidence scale. She speaks up when a cocky fellow intern misses a diagnosis out of hubris but reacts with paralyzing doubt in the face of her first code. After reviving the patient and being yelled at by Shepherd, she marches straight out of the hospital—Cristina fast on her heels—and pukes in the rain. That over, she wipes her face and walks back in, muttering a warning as she passes Cristina: “You tell anyone, ever…” Yes, vulnerability happens; it’s just best if nobody else knows about it. These two form a tentative alliance early, but it’s hard to say whether Cristina sees Meredith as the lesser of two evils—everyone knows Izzie worked as a lingerie model (“Seriously, that’s gonna help with the respect thing,” Cristina deadpans), or wants to size up the progeny of famous surgeon Ellis Grey, Meredith’s mother.
When Shepherd puts all the new recruits on a case that defies diagnosis, promising that anyone who can solve the mystery will join him for advanced surgery, Cristina suggests she team up with Meredith, who has been monitoring the patient. Meredith agrees, but also volunteers the surgery, should they make the diagnosis, to Cristina. She wants to stay away from Shepherd, who is far less disturbed by their liaison than she is (in fact, he asks her out).
In another twist one can see coming miles away, he offers the slot to her and she doesn’t decline. Pissed to find someone as passively ambitious as she is aggressively, Cristina lashes out: “I don’t get picked for surgeries ‘cause I slept with my boss and I didn’t get into med school ‘cause I have a famous mother. You know, some of us have to earn what we get.” Though stung that Cristina has revealed her one-night stand in front of Izzie, Meredith is too uncertain to fight back.
Did their recent history give her the upper hand with Shepherd? The doc sets her straight while delivering what could be the series’ mission statement: “You shouldn’t let the fact that we had sex get in the way of taking your shot.” Assuaged by this pep talk, Meredith scrubs in and falls hard for the wonder of surgery. “That was such a high. I don’t know why anyone does drugs,” she says, and the charming doctor sighs at this newbie, already starry-eyed over a love they share.
Sex, loyalty, professional appearances, decency: all the baby surgeons wrestle to find a balance between messy humanity and the precision needed for their line of work. Patients will come and go, but interpersonal drama pumps forever.