It must be fun to be the showrunner of a series in its eighth season. Sure, your ratings probably aren’t what they used to be, but they’re likely decent. You’ve probably had a fairly stable production groove going for several seasons. Most importantly: There’s a good chance you get to do whatever you want without a network suit breathing down your neck. By creating one of ABC’s biggest hits of the decade—no matter its laundry-folding status now, Grey’s Anatomy was once both critically acclaimed and one of the biggest shows on television—Shonda Rhimes basically wrote herself a check to do whatever she wants, and she’s taking advantage of it.
As she should. Even though I had a significantly lower opinion of last season’s musical episode than Todd, it was still a fun and exciting thing for the show to try. Now it’s one year later and time for the show to try another trick: this time, an alternate reality-episode. Alternate-reality episodes have a much lower degree of difficulty than a musical, especially in a show with this many characters and this much history. All you have to do is turn characterization on its head, use obvious narrative parallels to the original material, and toss in a few in-jokes to make the audience chuckle. Easy, right?
As it turns out, not so much. The problem is, even though alternate reality episodes are most often a lark designed to give the writers, actors, and viewers something fun and lighthearted, they still need to have a point. We still need to feel like that hour was worth something. When “If/Then” was over, all I felt was bored.
One premise informed the entire alternate reality: Who would Meredith Grey be if she had a different childhood? If her mother hadn’t gotten sick; if her father had been a good father? Would she be an entirely different person? It’s a perfect question to kick off a “What if?” sort of episode, and things start out promising. Meredith as a happy, smiley person doesn’t quite seem realistic enough even for an alternate-reality episode, but seeing her interact with her mother and the Chief as her father is amusing enough. Where things started to go off the rails for me was in the characterization of almost everyone else. Why would Alex be “nerdy” simply because Meredith was different? And would the Bailey we know be meek simply because Ellis Grey intimidated her? Sure, it was fun to see Justin Chambers be sunny, positive, and enthusiastic, just as it was kind of a hoot to see Chandra Wilson in dorky turtlenecks and braids, but did it ultimately make any sense?
I know, I know. I’m taking a silly episode of television that was designed to be silly far too seriously. Still, you can’t throw internal story logic out the window just because you’re trying something fun. The weird thing is, they got the people directly related to Meredith mostly right. Cristina very much could have become that competitive robot without Meredith’s influence in her life. Lexie might have gone off the deep end without the support she had growing up. I’m not sure Derek would have become a professional and personal joke without Meredith in his life—that seems to be giving a lot of credit to a woman who also caused him a good deal of misery along the way—but his easy connection with her at the end of the episode felt like a decent button on the proceedings.
Most of the problems occurred because the episode was simply trying to do too much. Each regular character got at least a moment, and most a full storyline. Plus, the return of beloved expats like Addison and less-beloved ones like Percy, along with dialogue jam-packed with a references to people like Izzie and George, simply left the show with too much content and not enough time to execute it all. Everything was so rushed and surface-level they barely had time to introduce their philosophical point, let alone make a case for it. Even the final voiceover telling us the moral of the story (“Your life is a gift. Accept it. No matter how screwed up or painful it appears to be.”) felt superimposed and almost divorced of the actual episode. The moral of the story was also a little bit confused. Was it about accepting life as it is? Or was it about how fate drives so much of your life you don’t have control over your own destiny? By alluding to the eventual union of Derek and Meredith, Cristina and Meredith, and Arizona and Callie even in alt world, the idea of fate loomed large over the episode, but was never really addressed.
I suppose if all you wanted from the episode was to watch a few familiar faces act out of character, toss off a few references to the good old days, and then have everything return to normal at the end and ignore this ever happened, this was a perfect episode. (I still contend it wasn’t quite funny, polished, or entertaining enough to even meet these standards, but that’s neither here nor there.) However, I recently watched The O.C.’s alternate-reality episode, which takes a lot of the same ideas and executes them in a much better way, and I couldn’t help but compare the two while watching. Just because a show is meant to be fun doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have standards, and this episode just simply didn’t measure up.