Hot show 'Grey's Anatomy’ has turned bleak. Can’t at least one relationship work out?
JAIME J. WEINMAN
The title of the
TV show Grey’s Anatomy is a play on the title of a medical textbook. And when that book says “solid matter is of smaller quantity,” it might just as well be talking about the last two seasons of the show, where the storytelling hasn’t been solid at all. The medical drama about sexy people in a Seattle hospital—a fun version of ER—was a huge success story two years ago: it became one of the top five shows in North America, propelled songs onto the pop charts and made us forgive Patrick Dempsey for making the movie Loverboy. But now, as the producers work on its fifth season, the summer repeats are being out-watched by Last Comic Standing, the Emmys are snubbing it, and one of the actors is talking about how bad the writing is. What makes a hit show burn out so fast? That’s a question no medical textbook can answer.
Complaints about the writing on Grey’s became big news last month when Katherine Heigl, who won an Emmy last year for playing an underwear-model-turned-doctor, criticized the way her character had been written lately: “I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination.” (The Emmy voters felt that way about the whole show, denying it a nomination for Best Drama.) But Heigl was late to the party; fans of the show had been complaining long before she did. Earlier this year, a petition was circulated to protest its transformation “from being something amazing to something we don’t even recognize.”
Grey’s Anatomy may have lost its sense of balance. It was an instant hit because of its combination of a bunch of different elements into an entertaining mixture: it was a med-
ical show, a romantic soap opera and a com-
edy all at once. What seemed to happen in the third and fourth seasons is that the show jettisoned everything except the romantic angst: comedy bits became harder to find, and the medical stories were limited to the occasional patient with a wacky problem, like swallowing marbles. Ingrid Diaz, who runs greysanatomynews.com, says that the writers may have lost sight of the importance of light comedy to the show’s popularity: “People obviously want the drama, but I feel the show got a bit bumpy when it became too dark for too long.” Creator Shonda Rhimes took to replacing the humour with soap opera clichés; the only show more outrageously soapy was Grey’s much-derided spinoff, Private Practice. The third season of Grey’s ended with a wedding that got broken off after the guests had arrived, and introduced a longlost half-sister for Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), while the fourth season featured Meredith constantly breaking up with Derek (Dempsey), infuriating fans who viewed these characters as the ideal couple. Or as the petitioners put it, Derek had once been “the perfect man,” and the recent seasons have reduced him to “a shell of that man.”
Grey’s Anatomy isn’t alone in showing early signs of burnout. In fact, it’s luckier than most, since it still qualifies as a hit. The same can’t be said for Heroes, which spent its first
season as a global phenomenon, only to end its second season with the creator openly admitting that the show was in trouble. Grey’s network-mate Desperate Housewives had a memorable first season followed by a dismal second season. Each of these shows has displayed the same problem as Grey’s, focusing more on the suffering of their characters than anything fun. Emma Rosenblum of'New York magazine summed up fan reaction when she wrote about why she was disappointed with the third season of Grey’s Anatomy. “Some of us had a hard week and would have very much liked to have seen at least one of these couples have a happy-ish ending.”
With so many shows starting out huge and then imploding, some critics are starting to worry that the very act of getting popular is the creative kiss of death in TV ; Matthew Gilbert wrote in the Boston Globe that “popularity spoiled ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, just as it ruined NBC’s Heroes.” But on the other hand, just because a show has creative trouble doesn’t mean it can’t improve; the few episodes Grey’s produced after the writers’ strike were lighter in tone than the rest of the fourth season. Diaz thinks Rhimes is trying to “bring back the humour,” and that she and other fans are “really optimistic about the upcoming season.” But even if Grey’s Anatomy gets back into form, its moment as a cultural phenomenon may be over. Katherine Heigl seems to think so, and apart from deciding to appear in 27 Dresses, when has she been wrong? M
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