Scenes in Seattle: A Grey’s Anatomy Season Five Discussion Friday, November 21, 2008Posted by Andy Hutchins in Rockabye.
Yeah, of all the scripted dramas on television, “Grey’s Anatomy” is the only one I watch faithfully. (I can’t ever catch “The Hills” at the right time.)
But I’ve seen nearly every episode, and have watched all of Season Five so far. Below, some thoughts on ABC’s sudsy behemoth.
A Return to Glory
The best part of this season is how it has returned to what made “Grey’s” great in its first two years: fantastic dialogue, including wonderful little soliloquies; vividly outlined and sometimes outsize characters; dramatic swings from week to week in the personal lives of the characters; dramatic surgical medicinie and outlandish scenarios; and, of course, brilliant use of a large and varied ensemble cast.
And that’s been established on the show with a metaphor of returning Seattle Grace to prominence. As we were informed in the first episode of the season, the hospital slipped to 12th in some all-important rankings. This could be a surprise because SG was somehow the locus of cutting-edge medicine in the Pacific Northwest, and sometimes the West, in early seasons, and able to lure supposedly nationally touted surgeons to the Emerald City and dish out seven-figure salaries. Or it could be overdue, because the four years or so in the first four seasons were pockmarked by stunning lapses in ethics, personal turmoil that keeps the staff more worried about bedtime partners than bedside manners, and, in probably the least realistic bit of it all, massive cover-ups of these things.
In any case, the metaphor fits the movement: Seattle Grace is getting better just like “Grey’s” is.
The most important part of this is the end of the “dark and twisty” part of main character Meredith Grey’s (Ellen Pompeo) arc, and the long-awaited reunion of MerDer, the power couple of Grey and Derek Shepard (Patrick Dempsey) that this show revolved around in its first two seasons before wobbling with in the last two years. The duo, with chemistry as light and natural as breathing, got together in a cheesily appropriate field of candles scene to end last season that, besides being sweet, touching, and true to character, finally wrapped up a miserable will-they-or-won’t-they-get-back-together era. In the interim, the show tried to build Meredith’s character with family traumas (her famed mother’s death and a long bout with depression) that kept her in the depths of what Mer herself called her “dark and twisty” self; “Grey’s” slumped when saddled with those problems, and floats when the bouncy, fun flirtations of MerDer are at least a sideshow. It’s impossible, as a fan of the show, to not be happy that these two willful adults are learning how to make nice and live together rather than feuding and parting ways.
But the love is being spread around this season.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
The problems with the maudlin and overdramatic third and fourth seasons of “Grey’s” were mostly side effects from stretching screen time too thin for a talented cast. MerDer were separated, robbing the show of some electricity; the Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh)/Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) storyline petered out too early and for off-screen reasons, leaving Yang with no compelling personal problems for a season; too much was made of a George O’Malley (T.R. Knight)/Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl)/Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) love triangle that devolved from quickie marriage to affair between characters who were like brother and sister; Addison Shepard (Kate Walsh) got jettisoned for spin-off “Private Practice”; and other characters turned into one-note parts, like Mark Sloan/McSteamy (Eric Dane) turning into the hospital bike, Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh) morphing into Cristina Lite as the head intern, and George going from member of the top-flight inaugural intern class to sad-sack retread intern. That totally ignores Chief Richard Webber’s (James Pickens) and Miranda Bailey’s (Chandra Wilson) personal/professional conflicts, and Alex Karev’s (Justin Chambers) difficulties with a to-be-committed girlfriend.
Clearly, there was too much going on, because not even I can make sense of that paragraph, and upon reviewing it, I missed entire characters and storylines from Season Four, like MerDer’s professional relationship growing as they performed clinical trials, Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith) and a nurse, Rose.
Now, though, everything’s getting spread more generously over fewer storylines. MerDer being together and Meredith being out of counseling helps with this; so does the end of the agonizing Meredith/Chief arc (Meredith’s mother had an affair with the Chief; it’s part of a complicated backstory). But bringing on a military doctor, Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd) as a love interest for Cristina has electrified both her personal life and the fanbase, who took immediately to McKidd’s fiery portrayal of the bruised and blunt war veteran. Removing Callie from George and putting her first with Erica in the show’s first lesbian storyline and now with Sloan in an interesting friends with benefits has given her reason to do more than mope. Putting another nebulous carrot, a solo surgery, before the central foursome (Mer, Cristina, Izzie, and Alex), has made their careers important again; giving them interns to teach and/or neglect allows another dimension for each character involved.
The competition and teaching are hallmarks of the show when it was better; MerDer is what the show has been inexorably slouching towards since its opening scene; it’s more interesting to see the professional/personal balance closer to 50/50, and that’s what the effort to buck the rankings has forced the show’s writers to cover.
And then there is Izzie. And Denny The Dead Guy.
Controversy and Corpse Copulation
Izzie originally lost Denny (Jeffery Dean Morgan) by trying to have him for herself through highly unethical means; specifically, she compromised his care to get him moved up a transplant list for a heart and hopefully remove him from his bed-bound state. It didn’t take, Denny died and that spawned Huge Cover-Up #1; to date, we aren’t aware of any repurcussions for Seattle Grace for a transgression that would be monumental if it happened in the real world.
This would all be well and good if Denny didn’t have a shadow and a ghost. He left Izzie millions, and she dithered for a season, trying to figure out what to do with the money; he left Izzie heartbroken, and she’s struggled to make connections with anyone in the interim, ruining a marriage in the process; he left Izzie a friendly ghost, and, most recently, has both kissed and slept with her posthumously, a combination of ethereal and corporeal has fans seeing ghosts–specifically, of the Fonz and a shark.
I rolled my eyes at it at first (I can feign dismay in this plot, but I really don’t care, and it’s at least gotten the mouthy Heigl to pipe down about the lack of writing for her role), but now I’m coming around to it as a necessary evil. Izzie’s utterly uninteresting as a doctor, as far as I’m concerned: she has neither the legacy as heirloom and weight that Meredith does or the drive that Cristina possesses, and counters those concepts with supposedly unmatched empathy that usually translates to Valley Girl exuberance or open flirting with flips of that mess of blinding blond tresses.
So if Heigl must be on screen, she may as well be sinking her teeth into a ludicrous storyline that will polarize like her often shrill character has for almost the life of the show. There’s little of her poisoning other characters in this plot, and though Alex is morphing into a model boyfriend and pulling her away from her spirited romps with Denny, it’s a chance for Heigl to shine, and that’s kept her fairly quiet, a welcome development for a weary fanbase that needed her comments about the writers around the Emmys like they needed another spin-off.
There’s going to be an interesting split on that arc, I know, but this season’s already prompted one unanimous vote of dissent and seems likely to raise another shortly.
The split-up of “Callica” and departure of Hahn, which was widely reported as a move forced by ABC on the show’s producers, has been condemed by critics, professional and armchair, as a blow to effective and sensitive portrayals of lesbians on television. And, yeah, it was jarring for Hahn to declare loudly that she was a lesbian in one moment and be leaving the hospital in the next, but the show has handled it as well as possible, despite an unfortunate line about the impossibility of “sort of” being a lesbian that probably won’t win back any GLAAD endorsements in the near future; it’s also run against the progressive sentiment on the Internet, with as many “we have a black president, but not a lesbian doctor” comments on recaps as racial slurs on YouTube clips. There are rumors that new intern Sadie (Melissa George), a lit fuse if ever “Grey’s” has had one, will turn into Callie’s new flame, but given fan reaction to her other controversial subplot, she may not have the chance.
You see, the interns at Seattle Grace are being ignored by a young and impetuous class of freshly crowned residents (I mean this in the natal sense), and, frustrated as they are by their older, wiser, and more photogenic predecessors refusing to repay the great teaching Bailey gave, have turned to a creative host of work-around solutions. These have included: inserting IVs in each other; opening up unclaimed corpses in the hospital morgue (though the residents did co-opt this strategy; can’t exactly blame the interns for having an idea and having it stolen); Sadie shedding her scrubs and opening herself up for some stitching; an epidural for a perfectly healthy and decidedly not pregnant male intern; and a for-kicks appendectomy on the gung-ho Sadie. It was only when that appendix turned out to be inflamed and the cavalry was called in that all of this came to light, and the ultimate punishment, probation, seems light, especially when the sparring it sent Meredith and Cristina two made it clear that the residents will be more than rapped on the knuckles.
It’s creepy and unsavory, and obviously unethical; a pre-med friend of mine pointed out that there’s no way any of those interns would stay in a real residency program after that sort of stunt. But this is the hospital that still employs an increasingly unstable Izzie Stevens: this sort of thing happens. My guess is that the increasingly shaky SG intern class gets sheared to two or three, perhaps elevating Lexie to a bit role with the big dogs rather than a post as Queen of the Utterly Prosaic Interns and casting off Sadie in a blaze of something for sweeps.
(Aside: there would be no worse television hospital to be admitted to than Seattle Grace. If you were lucky enough to get treatment, it would only be in between doctors batting eyelashes at each other, and you would stand only slightly better than a 50/50 chance of survival, perhaps getting inadvertantly verbally abused on the way, and your care would always get used to make a larger point about something in your doctor’s life. At Princeton-Plainsboro, in “House,” at least you’d be almost guaranteed a recovery, County General of “ER” would probably treat you swiftly and well, and a visit to Sacred Heart in “Scrubs” would probably leave you smiling. But Seattle Grace? Nah, ship me to somewhere in Tacoma.)
There’s little Seattle Grace hasn’t done, medically, at this point, but two moments from this year really stand out: first, George took a child patient to see a surgery, and walked in on a man with the skin on his face peeled back, which was both ballsy and ultimately repulsive; second, there was a kidney dropped on the floor during a “domino transplant,” which, while quite dramatic, took a leap of faith to believe.
And “Grey’s” has returned to the tried and true trope of tearjerking guest stars with less success this year; Bernadette Peters led a interminably mawkish parade of old biddies who had some strange love triangle going on in the season premiere, and there was a young patient in that transplant who was only giving her kidney in the hopes that her older, married lover would leave his wife. The “no dice” she got and the crying jag she went on was both predictable and wasteful, especially when there was a superior subplot (about a father paying his disconnected son for his participation) in that same episode.
Jeffery Dean Morgan’s continued presence on the show isn’t exactly a great thing, either; he says a lot with very little, but the stubble-and-rasp that is his character doesn’t do much for me.
The Really, Really Good
Miranda Bailey continues to be one of the best characters not only on this show but on television. She’s become much more than her stereotype would suggest, giving Chandra Wilson more and more impressive speeches (I’m reminded of a “Star Wars”-referencing bit in last season’s finale and the moving meditation on challenge in last night’s episode) and developing her voice time and again. It’s been reported more than once that Bailey is based on Shonda Rhimes’ mother, and there’s certainly a familiarity with Bailey, proud and strong as a lioness, that makes that sort of inspiration easy to see.
Her speeches are so legendary that the residents, in a humorous moment from last night, tried to cajole her into giving one to their wayward interns, and her stature in the hospital is such that the Chief has planted the seed of succeeding him in Bailey’s brain more than once. But the character, though gifted with the best one-liners and monologues on the show, is made far more than mere words by Wilson. Her big, open eyes convey plenty with or without her mouth (there was a classic and marvelous example of this early this season, as Callie told Bailey of her burgeoning lesbianism; Wilson’s expression almost imperceptibly went from interested to bemused to bewildered in something like three cuts, an incredibly subtle touch for a character known more for her brassiness), and she uses her short, squat stature to her advantage, fixing her castmates with upward glances that show off those eyes and altering her gait from authoritative to exhausted to ebullient when necessary. She seems destined for the top spot at the hospital barring any other ideas Wilson might have for her career, and that would be the end of a satisfying arc; one can only hope it happens while she twirls pearls of wisdom on the way.
McKidd has been a revelation in his short time with the show; he’s obviously battered in a lot of ways, but he’s steamed up a few kissing scenes with Cristina, and that’s earned him raves from the Rockette, who gushes about them on a weekly basis; likewise, the always impressive Oh has done good work with the substantially wider range she’s been afforded this season, trading frustration for vindication, ambition, satisfaction, and whatever mystic contentment she and McKidd seem to be weaving around their characters’ relationship. These two are well-matched and excellent actors.
The same goes for Pompeo and Dempsey in their relationship; they seem like a newly married couple rather than one merely living together (though, after four or so years of courtship, perhaps they should), and they fight more gently and humorously than the passive-aggressive struggles of seasons past, both sides making concessions and looking like a real couple with problems instead of a sensationally starstruck duo for once.
Dane has been awesome this season as “Grey’s” is finally seeing fit to give McSteamy some plot. He’s tender and sexy with Ramirez’ Callie, amusingly interested in Lexie, and finally talking to Shepard in the way that male best friends do, which is something this show has really never had on a weekly basis. Plus, his paternal performance in relating to the daughter of a man with night terrors was quite sweet; I resented the original diversion McSteamy caused for “Grey’s,” but the powers that be are finally realizing how to make use of him, and that’s a good thing for all involved.
And special commendation has to go to Ramirez and Smith, who made up what’s really the second line of females on this show (the first is probably the troika of Pompeo, Oh, and Wilson, with Heigl relegated to somewhere between the groups) and created an authenic and challenging lesbian relationship. That it had to end is a crying shame, but Ramirez will deal with the aftermath well if post-Hahn episodes are any clue.
Oh, and the guest stars have been very good with the few exceptions noted above. The great Joshua Malina turned up last night as the husband of a hypochondriac, and though he was eventually forced to do the front-end of a fecal transplant, all of his mannerisms were refreshingly carried over from the days of “The West Wing.” Madeline Carroll, a rising child actor, was superb in a waterworks-starting role last night.
Mary McDonnell was great in the first of what should be a medium-length arc as a cardiothoracic surgeon with Asperger’s who made her character more than a carrier of disease and threw a few darts at the SG staff; I’m really looking forward to more of her. (And as someone with a couple of friends with Asperger’s, she pretty well nailed that with class.)
The acting has been much improved, and much of that is due to this cast’s comfort with comedy, which the new season has added in liberal dashes to lighten up the proceedings. There’s been more one-liners in a few episodes than there were in the fourth season, and there have been pitch-perfect set-ups in a few, such as the residents’ respite in the department of dermatology.
Well, as we’re certainly racing into sweeps, I figured this was a good time to give the one or two people who have ever seen both “Grey’s” and DeadOn… a place to go and read up on the season without the piping-hot message boards you’ll find at higher-profile posts.
But I plan to recap most, if not all of the coming episodes, with a live-blog or two as time permits. I don’t know what to call this going forward, but I’m actively thinking of a title, and I welcome any help in the comments.
Also, I blame the Rockette for getting me into the show. You can blame her, too, because I only write these sorts of things about shows I like.