(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Todd VanDerWerff checks out Grey's Anatomy: the musical extravaganza! Next week, we drop in on one of the year's top sporting events, the championship game of the NCAA basketball tournament.)
Above all, I like TV that takes chances. I like TV that’s not afraid to fail and fail hard. When Breaking Bad did an episode entirely set inside Walt’s lab, with Walt and Jesse confronting both an insect and their own greatest fears, I cheered, not really caring that it didn’t “advance the story.” When Lost decided to send most of its cast to another era entirely, I was ready to go along with it because why the hell not? When Community goes out of its way to utterly reinvent itself in another genre, I find it thrilling, not disorientating because I love that the show has the ambition to do that. Hell, one of the reasons I keep watching Glee is because I keep hoping it will regain the courage of its original convictions and resolve to become the ultimate version of what it could be, rather than a safe network show, pumping out iTunes hits.
But the flipside of nailing something this ambitious is that you’ll fail, and you’ll often fail as often as you win. There’s a reason so few network television shows have that level of ambition: A network TV show is supposed to be a perpetual motion machine, designed to keep people coming back to what’s essentially the same episode, over and over, for—in the ideal version of this setup—DECADES. When people say The Simpsons is a shadow of its former self, they don’t mean that the show isn’t still capable of good jokes or touching character moments or anything like that. They mean that the network TV machine ground down the show until it WON. It’s now a factory product, custom-stamped every week with the signature that used to make for the greatest TV ever made. Ambition was killed by the fact that the show had to keep getting made. The older a show gets, the less likely it’s still taking big chances.
So I mean it as high praise when I say that Shonda Rhimes and her writers aren’t afraid to make absolutely awful television. The reason Grey’s Anatomy became such a stratospheric hit and the reason no one could duplicate it when it seemed it would be as easy as taking the old ‘80s workplace drama and blending it with an extra dose of soap opera was because the show took chances. It did big things. It took huge risks. It tried new things and wasn’t afraid to blow a storyline up if it just wasn’t working. Rhimes had never run a TV show before when she was suddenly gifted with one of the biggest shows on television, and she took this as an impetus to pick up the ball and run as fast as she could. When other shows might have slowed down and wondered just how much story should be burned through in a season, Rhimes hit the gas, particularly in the ridiculously entertaining season two.
But the burnout had to come sooner or later. Signs of wear and tear were already showing in that second year, signs that Rhimes’ relentless pursuit of her muse could lead to as many absolutely insane story decisions—like Izzie endangering everything she had worked for for a patient who wasn’t terribly memorable beyond being played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, king of the TV guest stars—as it did memorable ones—like that terrific bomb scare two-parter that took the show from time slot hit to must-watch series. As Rhimes’ show hit its third season and seemed unstoppable, her inability to do anything but follow her own whims led to everything from scandal—involving the Isaiah Washington situation—to very, very strange story decisions—like hooking up George and Izzie. Now in its seventh season, Grey’s has hung on to only a core of its former audience (though that core is still sizable), and it’s long past the point when it should have started to utterly fall apart.
But a curious thing happened. After a handful of seasons that were, charitably, hit and miss, Grey’s has started to get entertaining again. It’s not as good as it was at its very best, but the show has found a way to reinvigorate itself. It’s taking chances again, having long ago decided that it could still tell interesting stories about its characters if they were mostly paired off (the endless will-they/won’t-they dance being one of the chief problems with the show) and given itself over to a sort of “next generation” of doctors. The original cast (sans Katherine Heigl and T.R. Knight) is still there, having its own problems, but they’re very thirtysomething types of problems, while the younger kids get up to the usual mischief. It’s proved surprisingly durable in season seven, a season that’s, sure, had its fair share of soapy complications but has largely doubled down on medical drama. (It’s here that I should say that I haven’t seen every episode this season, but every time I check out the show on Hulu, I seem to watch two or three episodes in a sitting.)
The biggest soapy plotline of season seven has involved Callie (the luminous Sara Ramirez), whose relationship with stupidly-named Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) has turned deeply serious. At the same time, Callie has become pregnant with the child of Mark Sloan, her good friend and the doctor who was known, at one time (and you’ll kick yourself for realizing you know this) as McSteamy. (There was a break-up and stuff, and Callie fell into the arms of her good guy friend, and… what am I?! Wikipedia?!) Naturally enough, this has come to a head the only way that things on Grey’s Anatomy can come to a head: via some sort of giant crisis. In the last episode, Arizona asked Callie to marry her, then promptly plowed into the back of a truck. (In this episode, this prompts the memorable line, “I asked her to marry me, and that truck came out of nowhere," which is the kind of purple line only this show can pull off.) Callie was seatbelt-less, and she flew through the windshield. Now, she and her unborn child are in grave danger, and the only people who can help her are those crazy doctors who love her so much. Oh, and while she’s in the world between life and death, her mind struggling to hang on, synapses firing wildly, everybody’s going to sing about it.
It’s the metaphysical bullshit that always appealed to me about Grey’s Anatomy the most. Even when I was rolling my eyes at the soapy twists or the way EVERY patient paralleled the doctors’ lives, I dug on the way the show was unafraid to go bold with interpreting the interiors of its characters’ heads. Meredith died and wandered the afterlife for what felt like 500 episodes, and I loved it. It’s this material that gives this show the strongest possible connection to the greatest hospital drama of all time, St. Elsewhere, and it’s this metaphysical stuff that continues to work, almost in spite of itself. So where many on my feed were talking about how terrible this episode was (and I don’t blame them for thinking so, as it takes HUGE risks), I kind of dug the hell out of it.
Well, I did for the first half. As Callie steps outside of herself and gazes down upon her shattered body, sprawled across the hood of her car, then begins to SING THE SHOW’S OLD THEME SONG, it’s one of those moments where you either go with it or you don’t. The musical episode gimmick is one a great many shows have tried (including two other shows set in hospitals), but the gimmick usually involves elaborate Broadway-style production numbers. Outside of a few moments in this episode, Grey’s Anatomy tries to do something that’s closer to a SOMBER musical. Surprisingly, the show mostly gets away with it.
Here’s what I mean: After Callie sings the theme song, the show transitions to the hospital where she’s on the ambulance cart, eyes wide with fear, staring up into the eyes of Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd, one of the show’s few successful character adds during its long, lean middle seasons), he takes the melody from her, and the look in her eyes becomes one of “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?” It certainly doesn’t help that the characters are all singing Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars,” a song the show made famous back when it had the power to put songs on the Billboard top 200 chart. “Chasing Cars” is a silly song, sure, but it’s been made even more heartfelt here, as if that were possible. And then there’s no dancing. No Broadway antics. Just the cast singing mournfully for a friend they believe very well might be dead. And THEN the camera cuts away from the operating room, but the singing continues, providing the backing score for the other characters’ conversations about how they hope Callie will be all right. This isn’t a musical; it’s an entire episode of scenes like the scene in Magnolia where everybody sings “Wise Up” straight to the camera.
And for half the episode, it’s gutsy and moving and surprisingly profound (for a show that once had a character have a breakdown over the death of a deer). Rhimes—credited with the script—doesn’t so much create a storyline as she creates a series of vignettes where characters begin to sing, then provide the backing track for other characters expressing their grief. All of the songs the characters sing fall pretty ably into the middle-of-the-road soft rock the series has used to score its drama for years now, but by putting them into the mouths of the characters themselves, the songs become something different, something rawer and more interesting. This is not a musical designed to show us just how kooky it is inside Callie’s head (as the Scrubs and Chicago Hope musicals were). This is a musical that uses songs, sung by the characters, as an aural tapestry designed to explore Callie’s grief at the thought of dying, fear at the thought of losing her unborn baby, and hope that her friends would miss her. At least at the start, it was almost achingly sad. (If you’re going to take a look at it on Hulu based on this recommendation, you can probably check out after “Chasing Cars.” The episode never attains that level of power again.)
But the episode wore on, and Rhimes lost the courage of her convictions, and the songs got worse and worse (and more and more obvious), and the episode slowly deflated. It was still a pretty good time by the time the episode got to Callie’s final power ballad about wanting to feel love again—and Ramirez’s amazing voice could put just about anything over—but the thrill was gone as quickly as it had arrived. The episode brought in old character Addison (who long ago left to her own series), but it failed to really do anything with her, and it kept cluttering up the simple power of the musical numbers with side plots upon side plots. In the final act, perhaps realizing the show had given its main character nothing to do, Meredith got a long monologue about how much she wanted a baby, a monologue that killed any rhythm of the climax. The show was no longer audacious; it was back to being good ol’ Grey’s again.
Probably sooner, rather than later, Grey’s Anatomy will shuffle off into the TV show graveyard, and when people think back on it, they’ll probably remember the catastrophic fall, more than they’ll remember the times when it was good. Grey’s Anatomy got so bad that it’s difficult to remember that sometimes a show is bad because it’s trying daring things. Watching this musical episode wasn’t enough to make me a regular Grey’s Anatomy viewer again, nor was it enough to make me reconsider my belief that the show, no matter how entertaining this season, has probably run its course, but it did remind me of the fact that this was at one time a show with a raw, powerful sense of emotion, something that trumped almost everything else. Indeed, it was, at one time, one of the most ambitious, most gutsy shows on TV. It’s easy to think good TV and awful TV are polar opposites. Sometimes, it takes a reminder that they’re closer to each other than you’d think.