Sure, Grey’s Anatomy was a big hit, but was it good TV?

Sure, Grey’s Anatomy was a big hit, but was it good TV?

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

Hey, remember Grey’s Anatomy?

Yeah, it’s still on the air, heading into its 10th season this fall. It hasn’t just cruised past 100 episodes; it will surpass 200 episodes shortly after that 10th season debuts, with no signs of slowing. By some measures—and particularly once DVR viewing is taken into account—it’s still the biggest drama on the air among 18- to 49-year-old viewers, and it seems every season of the show carries with it an Entertainment Weekly or TV Guide piece that breathlessly intones that Grey’s Anatomy is back. To be sure, the show’s audience has shrunk from the highs it reached in its second, third, and fourth seasons—when a post-Super Bowl airing took a hit show and turned it into a phenomenon—but that audience is still reliably hooked into what the show is doing, and the core fan base is just as invested in some of the new characters the series has introduced as it ever was in the many who have departed from the original cast. 

Here’s the thing: Grey’s debuted in the now-storied 2004-05 TV season, perhaps the last, great gasp of the network TV machine. It was a season that brought with it successes like Desperate Housewives and Lost as well as cult favorites like Veronica Mars. Grey’s wasn’t even the only medical drama to debut and hit big in that season. Over on Fox, House started slowly but gained momentum as the network placed it after American Idol, with star Hugh Laurie becoming the face of his network and showrunner David Shore winning an Emmy for writing. Yet if anyone were to have picked the medical drama that would run the longest—even at the height of Grey’s run—the choice would almost certainly have been House, which had a medical-procedural premise designed to run for over a dozen seasons and the less convoluted soap operatics. Instead, House bowed out after eight years, and Grey’s is entering year 10.

Put another way: The best two seasons of Grey’s Anatomy are its second and its seventh. Is there another show in the history of television for which that is true? The quality arc for the show is all over the place, starting with a steady build in the first season, then skyrocketing into phenomenon in season two, then leveling off and dipping in season three, before having some seriously bumpy moments in seasons four (interrupted by the writers’ strike) and five. The climb begins again in season six, and at this point in its run, Grey’s is essentially a brand new show with brand new characters but just enough of the original gang around to provide a sense of continuity. In a lot of ways, the show it most resembles is ER, and while ER’s run was more impressive—garnering higher ratings and managing a more complete cast changeover—it’s amazing that Grey’s, derided by many as a silly medical soap when it debuted, has managed the transition to television institution as well as it has.

The most impressive link between ER and Grey’s, though, isn’t that both were huge hits or that both had such significant cast changeover. The most impressive link is that both were legitimate TV phenomena, among the most buzzed-about shows on TV at their heights, and both found a way to move from that to stability. The way of most TV phenomena is similar to, say, Glee, a show entering its fifth season that feels like it’s entering its 17th. Usually such TV shows hit a high point in season one or two, turning into one of those shows that tries so many crazy things and dares so many risky plot twists that it seems to be all anyone can talk about. Critical praise, big ratings, and water-cooler chatter follow. But using up that much story has a bad habit of sucking up all the oxygen in the room, leaving the show gasping for breath, getting increasingly more desperate to create buzz and headlines. The fall is usually steep, the plummet swift.

What’s fascinating about Grey’s is that this fall actually happened, but the show somehow recovered.  It may be hard to remember now, but in that second season, Grey’s Anatomy was one of the best TV shows around, burning through plot points at a furious clip. (Even more remarkable: Season two ran 27 episodes, due to holdovers from the first season.) It was the season of “Into You Like A Train,” perhaps the best single episode the show ever produced, in which the characters’ romantic travails were vividly externalized via a massive train crash. (This was never the subtlest of shows.) It was the season of the post-Super Bowl bomb episode, with a pre-Friday Night Lights Kyle Chandler getting blown to hell. It was the season of Izzie (Katherine Heigl) falling in love with patient Denny; lead character Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) falling into bed with George (T.R. Knight), who’d always carried a torch for her, after her true love Derek (Patrick Dempsey) saw his wife Addison (Kate Walsh) return; a hospital prom; and all manner of crazy implausibility that created something that was at once completely unrealistic and compulsively watchable. It was candy, and America ate it up.

Grey’s Anatomy was created and shepherded by Shonda Rhimes, the first sole African-American female showrunner in the history of television. (Perhaps as a result, her casts and crews have been quite racially diverse, and she’s done more on this score than perhaps any producer of her status in television history. Really only Norman Lear and Steven Bochco compare.) When asked in the early days of the series about her influences, she spoke frequently of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and there’s a healthy dollop of that show’s breakneck pacing and love of wild plot twists in Grey’s. But there’s also a unique blend of workplace drama and over-the-top soap that has Rhimes’ calling card. In many ways, Rhimes has been rather undervalued as a creator of hugely addictive TV, primarily because of the genres in which she writes, which are rarely among TV’s most acclaimed. (This has begun to shift with her recent Scandal, which has her usual, requisite soapiness but also a healthy dollop of the cable antihero formula.) Yet Rhimes writes fast-paced, perfectly pitched dialogue as well as anyone working in television, and she’s also great at swooning romanticism, at embracing the kind of deeply earnest, intensely felt romance that made the show’s relationships so great. Meredith’s famous “Pick me, choose me, love me” speech is corny, to be sure, but it’s got tremendous rhythm and absolute conviction.

But season two of Grey’s was a comet, and comets pass through the atmosphere all too quickly. The show’s third season had some of the right impulses, downshifting to a more lachrymose tone to preserve some of the story beats that were left. The early episodes of that season took their time playing out some of the leftover emotional conflicts from season two, but they were also burdened by the question of what to do about Izzie, who had committed an act so against the Hippocratic Oath (in the name of love) that she probably should have been run out of town. Yet the show needed her back at the central hospital setting, so back she came, via some of the most hand-waving bullshit ever. The ramped-back pace was a good idea, but the show had come to prominence on a basis of going over-the-top, blending life-and-death medical cases with less life-and-death romantic travails that gained urgency via proximity. By midseason, ferries were crashing into shore, Meredith was wandering through the afterlife, and George and Izzie were falling into bed together (in one of the show’s worst missteps).

Rhimes and her writers—who included a murderers’ row of TV scribes, including Krista Vernoff, who seemed to be on Rhimes’ wavelength from day one—were rapidly learning the chief pitfall of serialized television is the same as its greatest strength: Everything is permanent. Izzie doing horrible things to save her great love made for a huge emotional high in the moment, but it proved problematic when trying to return the show to its status quo (as all TV shows must ultimately do). The accumulated storylines had a weight to them that forced all later storylines to be viewed in light of them. What’s more, that weight made it difficult for Rhimes to approach her show as a producer, instead of a writer. 

This was never so apparent than it was during the Isaiah Washington debacle. The actor, who played the complicated Dr. Burke, a love interest for Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh, still giving one of the best performances on TV long after the critical spotlight has moved on from Grey’s), reportedly used a homophobic slur to describe Knight, who is gay, during filming. Rumblings of the incident made their way into the press, but nothing was confirmed, so the whole thing seemed to have been, at the very least, tamped down. What Washington had done was horrible, but actors on hit shows have done worse and not been removed. (Networks are rarely willing to tamper with success. See also: Sheen, Charlie.) Then Washington went and repeated the slur backstage at the Golden Globes after the series’ win. It was clear he had to be removed, but he was also part of an important love story on the show. 

All television series are trapped between the twin impulses of what’s best for the story and what’s best for the franchise. In an ideal world, Washington wouldn’t have been an asshole, and Rhimes and ABC wouldn’t have had to remove him from the show. Yet he was removed, at the end of the third season (probably too late, but at least not too little), and in that moment, the show shifted. It was still buzzy and flashy, but it was also unmistakably just a TV show, one that was subject to the same pressures as every other TV show. For her part, Rhimes doesn’t confront this question directly in a New York Times profile of her that ran earlier this year, but she obliquely refers to it—and Heigl refusing to submit her name for Emmy consideration due to not getting storylines she considered worthy of her talents—as a lesson she’d rather not have had to learn. In addition, at a recent Austin Television Festival panel on Scandal, the actors involved—Joshua Malina, Katie Lowes, and Dan Bucatinsky—said that before hiring actors, Rhimes now calls up previous employers to see if they’ll be easy to work with. It’s not hard to see this, too, as an offshoot of that time.

None of this is to denigrate season three, which is enormously entertaining to watch, bad ideas and all, simply because it’s fun to see if Rhimes and her writers can stay ahead of the giant boulder threatening to crush them at every chance it can. In some ways “staying ahead of the giant boulder” describes every Rhimes show (and every good serialized drama of the post-Sopranos era). The storylines are preposterous, the characters are over-the-top, but as long as the storytelling makes raw, emotional sense, nothing can stop it. Seasons four and five of Grey’s are hit-and-miss, with some fantastic storylines—like the one that unexpectedly ushers George out of the show; some problematic ones—like Meredith and Derek’s constant back-and-forth relationship; and some that are simultaneously both—like when Izzie starts seeing ghosts, apparently, but it turns out to be a health problem that provides ample room for all involved to ramp up the tragedy. 

And starting in season six, the show begins shifting in earnest from phenomenon—which had run out of gas—to stalwart. Rhimes and her writers began increasing the prominence of the show’s medical storylines, downplaying the romantic-comedy aspects of the show’s template to dig into the “disaster of the week” storytelling all medical shows must inevitably turn to. Yet Rhimes proved unexpectedly good at this, though this shouldn’t have been a surprise. Her strength has always been finding the emotional core of preposterous situations, and that describes disaster-movie storytelling to a T. When ER turned to constant disasters to goose ratings, it felt exploitative. When Grey’s sent a gunman through the hospital in the harrowing season-six finale, it was some of the best TV Rhimes had ever produced, particularly because in season seven, the emotional reverberations would be felt throughout, creating, unexpectedly, a second creative peak for the show. 

Around this time, original cast members started departing the show as well, and this turned into an unexpected asset. With the dead weight of those original storylines out of the picture, the show could begin creating fun, new characters, which has always been a strength of the series. There’s yet to be a season of Grey’s that doesn’t introduce someone who feels vital to the ensemble by season’s end, and it’s easy to sense that’s by design. The show has been responsible for so many great characters—Yang, Chandra Wilson’s hard-nosed but affectionate Bailey, Kevin McKidd’s intensely wounded trauma surgeon Owen Hunt, Sara Ramirez’s warm-hearted Callie Torres, Jessica Capshaw’s Arizona, Sarah Drew’s April, and Justin Chambers’ Alex and on and on—and what’s amazing is how many of them weren’t present in season one. Most TV shows introduce a handful of vital new characters in later seasons. Grey’s has introduced seemingly dozens.

By any standards, Grey’s Anatomy has been successful television, ranking highly in the ratings for nine seasons and entering the cultural lexicon via phrases as cloying yet catchy as “McDreamy.” But is Grey’s “good” TV? To be sure, the show has had its periods of being intensely irritating, and it has had its periods when it seems as if Rhimes has taken leave of her faculties, to say nothing of how its central character sometimes seems like its least interesting one or how Ellen Pompeo’s voiceovers as that central character rarely worked. But it’s also got an amazingly high batting average, particularly with every solid season that passes along in this second act of its run. 

Early in its run, Grey’s Anatomy had an opening title sequence that’s been eschewed entirely from the show. In it, a woman getting ready for a date is contrasted with a doctor getting ready for surgery, and it’s that divide that has always brought such intense criticism of the show, often from people who don’t even watch it. The idea that a medical drama could also be a romantic soap focused primarily on the love lives of a large number of vital, interesting female characters has always seemed to attract, at best, the show being written off as the TV equivalent of “chick lit” and, at worst, open derision of how unserious a show it is. But why should we think that women trying to find love is somehow “unserious” when it’s one of the most important things many of us will ever do? 

Granted, some of this criticism is leveled at all primetime soaps, and to be sure, some of it is just going to happen when a show runs as long as this one has. But it’s those sort of institutional biases that make it hard to practice good TV criticism or to be responsible viewers of the medium. Grey’s has had ample opportunity to be bad throughout its run, and it has been very bad. But on average, it’s been very good TV, filled with interesting, driven characters who run the gamut of professions within the show’s hospital setting. It’s been, by turns, a good soap, a good romantic comedy, a good medical drama, and a good interpersonal show about an unexpected workplace family, and it’s had a task made all the more difficult by having to produce more than 20 episodes for most seasons out of its run. 

Since The Sopranos burst onto the scene, we’ve too often classified a show as “good” based on how closely it adhered to the dark, violent, male-centric template set out by that particular show. And there have been a great many good shows spawned from that template. But there’s also been a very good hospital drama that’s been written off by too many people for daring to be primarily about the romantic lives of women. It’s time for that to end. At its best, Grey’s Anatomy has been among the very best shows on TV, and at its worst, it’s been at least fascinating to watch (including a deeply bizarre musical episode that I like in spite of myself). To write it off is to unnecessarily narrow the definition of what good TV can be, to limit what the medium is capable of. TV is at its best when it emotionally connects, and even when it seems to be otherwise merrily hurtling off a cliff, Grey’s Anatomy is nothing but emotional connection, which is more than other, more consistently better shows can say.

Next time: The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle