Spoiler Alert! If you have not seen season 8 of Grey’s Anatomy, please do not continue reading this article.
Making good television is a tough nut to crack, but making great television is near impossible. There is often a reason why shows such as The Simpsons, Little Britain and The Sopranos live long in the psyche of pop culture, and that is because they have very little competition in terms of outstanding entertainment. Groucho Marx once said, “I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.”
When Grey’s Anatomy first came onto our screens back in 2005, I must admit, it passed me by. Eventually, and after some significant peer pressure, I caught the first and second seasons on DVD. That, as they say, was all she wrote.
By the time Izzie and Denny were curled up on his deathbed, Meredith and Derek were on/off/on/off/on/off/on, and Burke discovered a hand tremor, I was pretty much done with the show. It was flat, repetitive, uninspiring junk. This flavor of the month had run it’s course for me, and I went back to watching My Name is Earl and 24. Most of you will probably agree that Grey’s Anatomy is hardly The Wire of medical drama or the next best thing since Breaking Bad. But I beg your reservations for a moment, as I recently stumbled across season 8 of the show on cable TV, and discovered a dormant genius within Shonda Rhimes’ surgical opus.
Now in full swing of its 9th season, Grey’s Anatomy has had plenty of time to grow, stagnate and fritter out. But something strange seems to have happened within the walls of Seattle Grace in recent years, and has resulted in the revival of a true guilty pleasure. There is a definite tendency within television audiences to be snobbish about the context of a show, or the ‘caliber’ of audience that it is trying to reach. Grey’s Anatomy has always suffered the stigma of being predominantly a bubblegum soap opera littered with beautiful people concerned only with their beautiful sex lives. Season 8 of the show is by no means lacking in any of the previously mentioned, but what it has beneath that is a unique vision of detailed character arcs and finely honed thematic connectives.
Where earlier seasons (note; I have only seen seasons 1 and 2, previously) were all about Derek and Meredith’s sexual exploits and Christina bitching on, season 8 has developed a significant change of pace for the characters and has managed to inject life into them. In episode 10, entitled ‘Suddenly’, the show’s creators demonstrate a devout commitment to balancing sensationalized drama with real human experiences. As Meredith and Alex go through the motions of addressing the stories’ over arching issue of a betrayal, Christina finds herself in a position of immense strain – operating on her bosses dying husband. The kicker of the episode comes not in the usual, “I’ve killed someone, how sad”-way, but rather in an outstanding sequence where Christina is forced to leave the scene of Henry’s death to the help Teddy, Henry’s wife, continue an operation completely unaware of her husband’s demise. This is storytelling in its purest form, a visceral and intimately loaded situation fraught with human emotions. Who’d of expected that from a show that has a juvenile obsession with ending every episode on a lesbian kiss?
Another surprising development with Grey’s Anatomy is the way in which each episode directly correlates to specific characters. The show is now pushing 14 main characters, and numerous secondary characters. Yet, somehow, each one manages to feel relevant and three-dimensional within the world of Seattle Grace. One stark and essential motif is the way in which individual surgeries become metaphorical explorations of the character’s and their situations. Episode 5, ‘Love, Loss and Legacy’, is a terrific example of how one simple background story can be overtly addressed via the episode’s primary surgery. Avery’s mother comes to the hospital as part of a teaching opportunity. Still finding his feet as a plastic surgeon, and very aware of his mother’s looming presence, the nearly emasculated surgeon finds himself as a front runner to assist his mother with replacing a man’s penis. As the episode develops, we realize that Avery is being spied on by his mother via an intern. By the end of the episode, the surgery has been a success, with the patient getting a penile transplant, and Avery finds his ‘mojo’ by standing up to his mother and sleeping with the intern. A hearty, if somewhat misogynistic outcome, that shows how a relatively weak character can allegorically find his manhood.
Something that struck me most about the show is how controlled each story arc is, and how one situation slowly develops and moves to make way for something much bigger; yet it remains engaging. Some shows such as Lost would fritter around in a wormhole of plotless ambling, hoping to eventually reach a sensible conclusion, but Grey’s Anatomy is the total opposite of this. When you have a season running 24 episodes, it is integral to have a hook that drives things forward, but does not outstay its welcome. Episode 1 of season 8 has April trying to find her voice as chief resident, Meredith coping with ruining Derek’s career and Christina refusing to submit to Owen’s desire for parenthood. By episode 24, April has buckled under the stress and lost her job, Derek has discovered an opportunity is Boston pushing Meredith to accept a job there partially out of guilt, and Christina has aborted her child, causing Owen to have an affair, split with her and completely lose his way as Chief Resident. Along this journey, the events have been measured and always leading to an endgame. Each turn has been believable and honest. There may be the bog standard shock event to open the season, and mandatory cliffhanger to end it. But in between has been a crisp and concise series of events, driving the story arcs and character plots forward; with the odd ‘special’ episode drawing in cinematic or novel experimentations (see episodes 13 and 15). If that isn’t good television, then I don’t know what is.
Grey’s Anatomy is not without its faults. Some characters are annoying, others forgettable. The jokes do not always hit, and it is sometime hard to care about the two-dimensional patients. Season 8 has plenty of tut-inducing clichés. However, for all its tarted up exterior and flippant demeanor, there is an astute and disarmingly alert mindset beneath it all. What stared off as a stopgap between Days of Our Lives and ER, now stands as trim contender amongst the heavyweights of primetime drama. It lets us know its smart, with witty references to elevators (the show motif for awkward sexual tension – listen out for the ‘dings’) and winks at us with sincere efforts to entertain and amuse. Grey’s Anatomy has developed into a fine example of how a TV show can mature beyond its initial purpose. In the pantheon of television greats, this may not quite be the Zeus-like quality of Mad Men or The West Wing, but it definitely has its place; maybe with the likes of The Office or House, something that almost anyone can watch and enjoy. A show with real heart and smarts, and not afraid to throw the audience a curve ball every so often. Whatever stigma was attached to watching the show in the past should be well and truly shaken. This has now become a show well worth watching. So thank the Heavens then, that season 9 has already started.
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