Is the Patient Breathing?
Article by Jennifer AJ
Created by Shonda Rhimes, Grey’s Anatomy is now one of the all-time longest running shows on US TV. 19 seasons in, the medical drama chronicling the lives of doctors working at a Seattle hospital is still going strong. Imagine, since its 2005 series premiere, the United States has had four presidents. The latest season’s ratings is a far cry from its heyday of 30++ million viewers, but it remains one of the most watched shows on network television, not to mention an enduring pop culture landmark.
The show started with five first-year surgical interns at the Seattle Grace Hospital: Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), Alex Karev (Justin Chambers), George O’Malley (T.R. Knight), Isobel “Izzie” Stevens (Katherine Heigl), and Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh). Keen-eyed fans would point out that their initials spelt together is literally M.A.G.I.C. And make magic they did!
To explain the appeal of Grey’s Anatomy, let’s dissect the formula that made the show the icon that it is.
Plain and simple, Grey’s Anatomy has some of the most good looking, witty, and full of drama doctors in existence. Everyone who arrives at the hospital always brings some sort of baggage. Whether it’s secret half-siblings, unresolved trauma, or secret identity, this hospital has the uncanny ability to attract gorgeous hot messes in every batch.
As the titular Grey, Meredith is undeniably the beating heart of the show. She would end up in the now infamous McDreamy vs McSteamy debate involving her two hunky love interests, Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) and Dr. Mark Sloan (Eric Dane). The early seasons also dealt with Meredith’s dysfunctional family, from her mother’s dementia to the arrival of her half-siblings, products of each of her parents’ infidelity.
The rest of the interns also have their fair share of drama, most prominently Izzie’s love triangle with George and Alex as well as Meredith’s half-sister Lexie (Chyler Leigh)’s turbulent romance with Mark. Health scare? Nearly all of these doctors have been on the operating tables themselves (some didn’t make it alive). Through it all, the M.A.G.I.C. gang and co. form really close friendships that become the highlight of the show.
Over the years, the show follows the interns as they navigate their personal and professional lives. It would involve a revolving door of doctors, a merry-go-round of romantic entanglements, and more life-threatening events than the average person would see in a lifetime. You name it: mass shooter, bomb threat, explosion, all sorts of crashes (car, bus, boat, plane), every natural disaster in the book – the docs have seen it all. The hospital also went through name changes, twice – first as Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital, then finally Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. The on-call room has seen more hookups than hotel rooms and the list of medical cases are as crazy as they come: a patient stuck inside concrete, two people punctured together by a piece of steel, someone’s even got a bomb planted inside his body.
Here’s a round-up of some of the most shocking storylines in Grey’s nearly 20-year history:
In the season 1 finale, Derek and Meredith’s romance hits a skid when the former’s estranged wife Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) shows up at Seattle Grace in an unpleasantly dramatic surprise to Mer.
In its post-Super Bowl season 2 episode, Meredith finds a patient with a live bomb inside his body. Ever the derring-do, Meredith moves to extract the bomb with her bare hand. She survives of course, but someone else does explode – and it’s not the patient.
The Izzie-Denny saga
In season 2, Izzie falls in love with Denny Duquette, a heart transplant patient. In order to move his name up the donor receivers list, she risks her medical licence by cutting his LVAD wire. Denny eventually gets the transplant but dies of a stroke shortly after.
George the John Doe
In another heartbreakingly personal tragedy, the Seattle Grace doctors belatedly realize that the disfigured John Doe in their care is George. Despite his friends’ best efforts, George succumbs to his injury.
The Mass Shooting
In season 6, a man who’s just lost his wife at the newly merged Seattle Grace Mercy West goes on a shooting rampage at the hospital. Several doctors are fatally injured, Derek gets shot and nearly dies, and in her panic, Meredith has a miscarriage.
The Plane Crash
Arguably the most tragic storyline in the show’s history, the plane carrying most of our main cast crash lands in a forest. Arizona loses a leg. Lexie dies after being trapped underneath the plane and her lover Mark succumbs shortly thereafter, putting a devastating end to the fan-favourite coupling.
Derek’s Sudden Death
News had come out that Dempsey was to leave Grey’s in season 11, but it still came as a shock when McDreamy got taken out by a truck after helping an injured family on the road.
Meredith’s Beachside Purgatory
In season 17, COVID did make its way into Grey’s universe. When Meredith lapses into a coma after contracting the illness, her consciousness lands in a sort of beachside purgatory. There, she encounters dearly departed members of the cast like her old friend George and husband Derek.
To put it simply, there’s never a boring day for these physicians. That’s why the show is so addictive.
Aside from the dramatic storylines, the show delivers plenty of memorable one-liners. There’s Derek’s “it’s a beautiful day to save lives” line, Cristina’s “you’re my person” to describe her friendship with Meredith and of course, Meredith’s poetic narrations framing each episode. Spearheaded by Rhimes in the early days, the show is responsible for watercooler moments like the infamous “pick me, choose me, love me” scene. Nowadays, the word “pick me” is adopted by Gen Z to describe someone who thirsts for attention. Some of these kids were not even born when the show first aired. Just goes to show how truly enduring the show’s impact has been.
The success of the show is inextricably linked to Rhimes. Its success singlehandedly kick-started Rhimes’ reign as the queen of television. Here’s where she honed her signature storytelling style: hyper-dramatic, sexy, and soapy drama with punchy dialogues that look so good clipped for TikTok.
At one point, she owned ABC’s coveted Thursday night spots with a trifecta of hits that included Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder. Grey’s has outlasted all of the other shows despite being first on the air. Though she has long handed showrunning duty to Krista Vernoff, it is her touch that laid the foundation for Grey’s Anatomy’s longevity. Her most recent work is executive producing Netflix’s Regency romance sensation Bridgerton. It is within the realm of possibility that Grey’s might outlast that one too.
Time and time again, the show displays how to masterfully deliver needle-drop moments accompanied by a great song selection. Songs from obscure musicians skyrocketed on the charts thanks to the show. It was like TikTok for Gen X and millennials. This is most aptly exemplified by The Fray’s “How to Save a Life”, a soft-rock ballad that appears in the show’s second season as the Seattle Grace doctors go about their day. And then there’s “Chasing Cars” from Snow Patrol, similarly a soft rock tune playing at the pivotal moment in Izzie and Denny’s heartbreaking love story. The two songs have become so synonymous with Grey’s that they featured again during the show’s season 7 musical episode. The former even became the title for episode 21 of season 11. Considering Grey’s relies on its sentimental storylines to grab viewers’ attention, it’s no wonder music plays such a huge part in its history.
So many shows have attempted to replicate Grey’s Anatomy’s formula, but none really came close or lasted as long. Now that it’s airing on Netflix, a new generation of fans have come to embrace the Grey’s magic. With it, the show keeps introducing a fresh crop of interns to fill the spots of departing doctors. On one hand, this gives the show the ability to keep regenerating. On the other hand, every good story needs a good ending and Grey’s needing to keep going means characters often don’t get proper endings. This has happened multiple times. Like that time Chambers’ abrupt departure led to his character Alex leaving behind a perfectly happy relationship for an old flame, an out-of-character moment for him. Many beloved ships have also fractured due to this: Meredith and Derek, Callie and Arizona, all of Christina’s relationships, the list goes on and on. Not to mention the heartbreaking deaths of beloved characters because the actors left the show; Grey’s fans will never recover from Derek’s sudden death or Mark and Lexie’s double whammy of demises.
Now that Meredith, the face of the show and the last of the original five, has departed following the end of season 19, the series must redefine what Grey’s Anatomy should be going forward. The series is long in the tooth and has been getting stale. At this crossroad, the showrunner has two choices: leave on a high note or continue resuscitating an old horse. Frankly, as a story-first viewer, I’d rather see it receive a proper farewell, but as it were – with relatively healthy ratings, the show’s greenlit for season 20 – it seems like we’ll be with Grey’s Anatomy ‘till it dies of old age.
Published on October 3rd, 2023. Written by Jennifer Ariesta for Television Heaven.