[23 September 2007]
PopMatters Features Editor
About 80 years ago, Sigmund Freud sought to explain the psychological process whereby we try (and usually fail) to get what we want. The great bearded one famously settled on the highly reductionist (but still pretty useful) dialectic between what he termed the ‘reality principle’ and the ‘pleasure principle’. In his view, we are constantly torn between what we want to do (pleasure) and what we have to do or, crucially, what we feel we have to do (reality). As in: I want to sleep with my wife’s sister (pleasure), but this would seriously complicate my life (reality), although it would be nice to get a look at her naked chest (pleasure), but still I would probably get caught (reality), and then divorced (pleasure?), and then die alone (reality) in an unmarked grave (speculation).
This may all seem quite obvious. But, it was actually rather revolutionary in its day, and has had some very long legs —in many subsequent studies of sexuality the conflict between the reality principle and the pleasure principle has constituted the central frame through which we are asked to understand human behavior.
Grey’s Anatomy, the hugely popular and intermittently clever prime-time medical drama, provides a glorious example of just the kind of pleasure versus reality conflicts that Freud would have found interesting. Like many successful television series’ of post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer vintage, this particular program operates within a stark, quite unlikely, and yet utterly uncomplicated moral universe, defined by the persistent lure of delicious (and forbidden) pleasure, and the inevitable horror of an unalterable reality. Indeed, each character’s journey is defined through the pendulum’s arc, swinging back and forth between the poles of illicit delight and awful pain. It’s a tortuous yo-yo for the characters—and we have little reason to expect that any of them will ever become “happy”—but it makes for scandalous fun to watch.
Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey
In this season, by far the darkest and most challenging of the three so far, we witness as most of the principle characters undergo some sort of cataclysmic personal tragedy: one character loses his dad; another, her fiancée; two characters get married (but we all know it’s a bad idea); one surgeon develops a tremor in his hand; one is dumped by his long suffering wife (and then she loses their baby); another discovers that she has become barren following a recent abortion; and one particularly dark and twisty character loses a mother, a stepmother, and at least two potential lovers. She even attempts suicide (possibly twice). Hilarious!
The fact is that, for a pseudo-comedy, this is a sad, unhappy, and generally depressing show. However, it is also blessed with among the best ensemble casts in recent memory, a group of actors talented enough to maintain the necessary degree of humanity, levity and emotional depth for us to root for them when they fall so impossibly low. Certainly some have more presence than others—Sandra Oh could steal a scene from Fort Knox, and Kate Walsh’s duck-lipped Addison is consistently the most magnetic player in the room—but even the shallowest of these performances works because it is held aloft by those of the others’. (For instance, Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey looks unhealthily translucent and comes across as generally unlikable, things one assumes the producers are worried about? And Katherine Heigl’s Izzie is less and less interesting with every script – how long can she keep saying “George, we have to talk?” Luckily, Isaiah Washington’s listless and haughty Burke has been axed from the show before he does any more of that weird squinting-into-the-distance-because-it-makes-me-look-thoughtful thing he does.)
Since no one ever gets away with anything, ever, on this program—there is, for each of those ugly and heartrending events listed above, a transgression (usually sexual) that precipitated it—it allows the viewer to completely avoid the arduous task of actually thinking or considering or really engaging in any intellectual way with what transpires. In the little world of Grey’s Anatomy, everyone gets their come-uppance, or their reward, every time. Do something bad (pleasure) and you will get some kind of (often horrific) karmic ass-kicking (reality). But while this may seem like a stable universe, one wonders if the stability has been won at too high a price. For in order to maintain this hermetic arrangement, sex, the prime mover in all things Grey’s Anatomy, is always a bad idea.
In most cases, when characters on Grey’s Anatomy have sex, their lives get more complicated, someone close to them dies, and/or they fall into some terrible cycle of self-loathing and masochistic activity. They all cheat on their lovers, or almost do, or try to and fail. They betray themselves and their friendships for sex (except, notably, in the case of Miranda Bailey, the mother figure who seems neither interested nor capable of the kinds of sexual dalliances to which the others are so much prey). And sex, they all seem to agree, is bad/good—it is fleeting, and rarely worth it.
Back in Season One, Izzie referred to her vagina as “the beast”; in one important episode from this season, a man who has been cheating on his wife gets a horrific parasite lodged in his urethra (!) which the characters by and large agree might serve him right; in another representative storyline, Bailey has a good day (worth eight million bucks, she claims) when she councils a young girl that having sex with a boy won’t make her life any better. Moreover, one has to wonder about the thinking behind the plotline that finds Addison (a neo-natal surgeon) having an abortion and then suddenly finding out that she can never become pregnant again. Even though anyone with a heartbeat knew that having a baby with Sloan would have been a terrible idea, she still gets a karmic punishment of massive proportions.
In the end, as we watch these 25 episodes (although I’d certainly counsel anyone to skip the colossally awful episodes 22 and 23 – turns out that doctors in Los Angeles are obsessed by sex too! And they’re all so wacky!), we come to the realization that this just might be the most significant television program of our day. It addresses our deepest fears (death, illness, loneliness and, well, reality) while stroking our absurdly engorged capacity for feeling guilty about our pursuit of pleasure.
We, having grown up in the age of AIDS, now live in an era dominated by trashy celebrity and the pornification of everything from children’s toys to video games to fashion to food. Paradoxically, we obsess over, have unlimited access to, and yet are completely terrified of sex. We are afraid of pleasure. Or, if not pleasure exactly, then we fear the repercussions associated with the achievement of pleasure. Grey’s Anatomy asks us not to confront and consider this crisis, but to follow it as it unfolds. They don’t have to ask us to accept it, because we already do. Like Jason Voorhees killing every non-virgin he can find, Grey’s Anatomy punishes its characters for trying to secure a little un-reality.
Is that how we look at the world? Seriously? The generally unnecessary extras include a number of extended episodes, audio commentaries (always lighthearted and fun!), and a disc with short featurettes and gag reels.
Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson, T.R. Knight