Stuck on a desert island or confined to a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, I will take the 15-year-old medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” as distraction over any of its newer, shinier, more critically acclaimed, more endlessly dissected and meme-fueling competition.
I’ve been onboard since 2007. The show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, or its current showrunner, Krista Vernoff, could replace the lead character, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), with an android: I have no desire to ever stop watching. The longevity of my emotional investment is partly the point. Nothing replaces the feeling — unique to television — of watching a show age in real time. And this one has remarkably held up.
Besides the occasional tremor when a cast member leaves or acts out — or a pandemic prompts a season to end prematurely, as happened last week — series like “Grey’s” are often taken for granted. Yet the pleasures they dispense are both rare and very real. Here’s why I’m a fan.
How I Discovered It
I embarked on my “Grey’s” journey around the middle of Season 4. “ER,” to which I was devoted, was in its penultimate season and running on fumes, and I must have been looking, consciously or not, for another prime-time drama focusing on adults rather than children or families. (The medical genre wasn’t a draw in itself: I never got into, say, “House,” and I didn’t even bother with the “Grey’s” spinoff “Private Practice.”)
One night, I stumbled onto Seattle Grace Hospital, and I never left. I can’t remember the episode or why I was hooked — maybe it was an intriguing case, maybe it was a snarky exchange between Meredith and her “person,” Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh). No matter: I was back the following week and have remained loyal.
Why I Watch
It’s not just inertia that has kept me hanging on. I have ditched other favorites, like “The Walking Dead,” many seasons in. But “Grey’s” has never flagged in brilliantly stitching together the personal, the professional and the soap-operatically outrageous. Of course, the show handles the medical side of the stories well, deftly balancing one-in-a-million cases with less colorful but just as dangerous illnesses. (It’s amazing how many people have been impaled by implausible objects over the years.)
Yet operating-room action alone would not have kept me interested: I have stayed for the ever-changing permutations of horny doctors and to watch characters either settle into relationships or flamboyantly sabotage them. This is a series in which adults have adult concerns, but the impulse control of hormonal teens.
The show has also never shied from hot-button issues (Meredith has recently become obsessed with the inequity of the American health-insurance system) or from addressing the moral and ethical quandaries of fallible doctors blinded by hubris, pigheadedness or lust.
And all of this has unfurled with a matter-of-factly progressive approach to race (inclusive casting has always been a huge part of the appeal), sexual orientation and physical and mental disabilities — a tolerance woven into the show’s fabric rather than funneled into Very Special Episodes.
Why I Keep Coming Back
Renewal is built into the show’s DNA: Grey Sloan Memorial, as the hospital is now known, is a teaching institution, which means that new interns and consulting doctors arrive at regular intervals. They are put under observation, and the show either absorbs or rejects them, like a body with a transplanted organ. Established stars can’t sleep soundly either, and anybody can get walking papers overnight. When the powers-that-be killed off the dreamboat Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) in Season 11, ratings did not sink — and the show remains a hit for ABC.
If you become overly attached to a character or a couple on “Grey’s,” chances are that at some point you will wind up either sobbing or furiously throwing objects at the wall. And you will keep watching because the show is uncommonly well-written and directed, even when the plot goes off the rails.
What I Manage to Overlook
Loving means tolerating flaws. “Grey’s” often deploys weapons of mass emotional manipulation that drive me crazy in other shows. I can’t stand sappy acoustic covers of pop songs, but when they play over patients being informed they are going to live or die, I start crying. Likewise, preternaturally perceptive children are my Kryptonite on all series except “Grey’s.” Perhaps this is because said kids are almost always patients, so they come and go fairly quickly. (Many of the doctors have offspring now, but they barely figure in the story lines.)
Am I Prepared for When It’s Gone?
As a rule, I accept that shows must end. In 2019, the ABC entertainment president Karey Burke said that she would keep the series going as long as Rhimes and Pompeo were game. Pompeo’s contract runs until Season 17, in 2021; she could well renew and renew and renew, until Grandma Meredith bosses around interns a third her age. I will tag along, even if it requires walkers for everybody involved.