High School with Scalpels
Isn’t that the most ridiculous piece of crap you ever heard?
—Dr. Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl)
Thursday night is TiVo night, and the main event pitted Grey’s Anatomy against CBS’ 800lb. gorilla CSI. In moving Grey’s from the comfortable Sunday night slot where it averaged almost 20 million viewers per episode, ABC is showing enormous faith in its hospital drama. But why not? Although it averaged 25 million viewers last season, CSI‘s ratings actually represented a year on year loss of well over one million viewers. By contrast, Grey’s’ ratings increased last season, adding a massive three million viewers.
At heart, Grey’s is a silly, inconsequential soap opera. It’s the sort of chaff where a pocket-sized outbreak of Thee Plague (now treatable by antibiotics, but don’t tell anyone) leads to the quarantine of two protagonists for almost an entire episode, and expect viewers to suspend disbelief throughout. Nonetheless, it’s a well cast and beautifully shot soap opera, with characters we can love and hate and a soundtrack of frequently marvelous music.
Shows like Grey’s and The O.C. seem the culmination of a process that began in the mid-‘80s, when John Hughes filled his movies with pop and Bartle Bogle Hegarty introduced their Levi’s account to classic pop music. Certainly, the first thing that attracted me to Grey’s Anatomy was the music, from favourites such as Rilo Kiley, Tegan and Sara, and the Postal Service. Music can be intrusive too. While the opening of this season’s premiere episode, “Time Has Come Today,” made a pleasantly subtle use of the Dixie Chicks’ “Lullaby”, Grey’s Anatomy can also look rather more like a video thrown together to promote the next big Coldplay rip-off than a drama in its own right. Sony label-mates and touring partners the Fray and Mat Kearney, for example, are both doing rather well with their Grey’s’ exposure at the moment.
Cross-marketing and innuendo aside, the very best thing about Grey’s Anatomy is that its strongest characters are women. Unfortunately, none of them is Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), the show’s Carrie Bradshaw. Looking at least 10 years older than her fellow interns, Meredith is the least sympathetic, and with her endless voiceovers, she’s possibly the most annoying character on TV today. No wonder they call her “Meh” for short.
Her colleagues are more compelling. While Sandra Oh portrays Cristina with intensity, humour, and humanity, Miranda (Chandra Wilson) mentors her staff with determination and fierce compassion, occasionally betraying inner torment as well. Their interactions tend to be fraught. As Calliope (Sara Ramírez) has noted, “We’re all 17,” she observed in “Time Has Come Today”, “It’s just high school with scalpels”. If Grey’s ever becomes as self-indulgent as Buffy, it’d be better equipped to produce its own musical, since Tony winner Ramírez and Wilson, as well as recurring guest star Loretta Devine, are outstanding singers.
So far, however, Grey’s has left the singing to the imported talent from Sony. And lately, the show has been all about Izzie (Katherine Heigl). Almost too beautiful (yeah, right), she spent most of the third season premiere lying on her bedroom floor in a pink prom dress, pin-up perfect. A succession of flashbacks spiraled about her, slices of early life at Seattle Grace that reminded us Meh has always been both a self-centered bore and a drunk. These scenes also underlined the difficulties someone like Izzie can encounter when she decides she wants to be “respected for her mind.” Her peers and bosses, the flashbacks told us, all thought Izzie was just too darn lovely to be a surgeon. She’d be better off working in gynecology or pediatrics. Had she considered nursing?
Heigl carries the same burden as an actress. Towards the end of the last series of Grey’s, it seemed the writers were trying to push her towards an Emmy. But her character was so confusingly stupid that their efforts came to naught. Izzy rather summed up the problem last season when she gave the line: “Isn’t that the most ridiculous piece of crap you ever heard?”
This season, however, Heigl may have better material. As she lay numb on that floor in that dress, she gave as heartrending a portrayal of pain and mourning as you are ever likely to see in a silly soap opera. Almost like an actress without a script, Doctor Izzie knows there’s a role she should be playing here, but no one’s given her the lines, so she simply cannot get up off the floor and carry on with the play.
Another of Grey’s fine female cast got a chance to shine during the episode. First, that neonatal goddess and walking tongue-twister Dr. Addison Forbes Montgomery-Shepherd (Kate Walsh) saved the life of an abandoned newborn. Then she captured the moral high ground in the romantic triangle involving her, her husband Derek (Patrick Dempsey), and Meh. Discovering that Derek, who’s supposed to be working at saving their marriage, had been getting intimate with Grey’s anatomy yet again, Addison first washed and dried Meh’s skinny, black skimpies, and then pinned them up on Seattle Grace’s “Lost and Found” notice board.
Derek “McDreary” is about as annoying as Meh. So, aeons ago, Addison committed the unforgivable sin of sleeping with her husband’s best friend and getting caught in flagrante. But is that really a good enough reason to choose Meh over Dr. Addison Forbes Montgomery-Shepherd? I mean, come on, even Addison’s name has more meat on it than Meh does. She’s such a warm, attractive, dignified, and above all, together character that she could sleep with the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the entire cast of Grey’s, and I still wouldn’t chose Grey over her.