TV’s Best of the Decade: No. 30 — ‘Grey’s Anatomy’

12.02.09 8 years ago 6 Comments


I’d original set this spot aside for CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” My argument, given that I can make up my own darned rules regarding what justifies a show’s placement on this list, was going to center around the unquestionable proficiency of the original “CSI.” The thesis was going to continue, noting that the formula established by Jerry Bruckheimer, Danny Cannon and company had taken CBS over and, in the process, made CBS TV’s most watched network. Only only one or two shows of the decade were more empirically important and influential to the fate of a single network, because without “CSI,” there’d be no “CSI: Miami,” “CSI: NY,” “Criminal Minds,” “Without a Trace,” “Cold Case” or “Numb3rs” and there probably wouldn’t be an “NCIS” or an “NCIS: Los Angeles” either.
Oh yeah. I could have sold “CSI” at position No. 30. I could have made you believe.
Then Sepinwall says to me, “How often do you watch ‘CSI’ each season?”
Ah. There’s the rub. Like several of CBS’ procedurals, I really only watch once or twice per season, usually when there’s a big-name guest star or the introduction of a new main character. I only watched the first two seasons of “CSI” in their entirety and even if I’m allowed to cheat this list as much as I see fit, that’s more of a cheat than I could stomach, at least this early. I’ll be cheating plenty down the road.
So I looked at my provisional list, with maybe 45 shows in no particular order, and “Grey’s Anatomy” jumped out. Like “CSI,” it isn’t a snobby choice. It isn’t one of those “I’m a Critic And I’m Going to Complain About a Show I Love That Sarah Palin’s Real America Doesn’t Know Exists” choices. It’s also not a “cool” choice. In fact, “Grey’s Anatomy” has been a punching bag for years, often self-inflicted.
“Grey’s Anatomy” is a hit and it’s also a hit that I watch every week, a hit that I feel emotionally invested in and a hit that I feel often achieves excellence, albeit sometimes dancing between excellence and infuriating within the space of a month.
[More after the break…]
It’s easy to forget the dire situation that ABC found itself in after allowing Regis Philbin and “Who Want To Be a Millionaire” to salt the proverbial ground for several seasons. It’s easy to forget because of the 2003-2004 development season, in which ABC unearthed “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” “Lost” may or may not make its appearance on this list in a few weeks (I don’t want to spoil the surprise) and I quit watching “Desperate Housewives” at the end of Season Two and haven’t looked back. “Grey’s Anatomy,” which I’ve stuck with from the start, has been the most successful of the group, though it was actually the afterthought when it was launched, getting held back until March of 2005.
So, like its Thursday night rival, “Grey’s Anatomy” is something of a network saver. 
But unlike “CSI,” the “Grey’s Anatomy” formula hasn’t proven to be reproducible. For the most part, every network attempted to clone “CSI,” with CBS making a cottage industry of it. But no network has managed to clone “Grey’s Anatomy,” at least not successfully (an assortment of “Grey’s” clones have littered development slates for years, but usually haven’t made it to air). Even if “Grey’s Anatomy” was a Frankenstein show itself — A pitch would say that it’s “E.R.” by way of “Sex and the City,” which a splash of a younger skewing “thirtysomething” for good measure — the attempts to copy it should be myriad. Instead, we’ve gotten “Mercy” and “Defying Gravity” (which I know some people liked, so I’m not gonna mock it).
That, to my mind, is a salute to just how right Shonda Rhimes has gotten things most of the time. And on her first time out of the chute. When we wrote about “Grey’s Anatomy” in its earliest casting phase, we had to choose between identifying Rhimes as the writer of “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement” or the Britney Spears dud “Crossroads” and I usually went with “Crossroads,” just because it was funnier.
There’s the parable that’s paraphrased at the start of the mind-blowing French film “La Haine”: “Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good… so far so good… so far so good. How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land.”
That’s how I’ve always felt about “Grey’s Anatomy” and the way Shonda Rhimes and company have handled every precarious situation over six seasons.
That was never more evident than last season, when early episodes seemed to strongly imply that Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) was having gratifying sex with the ghost of departed short-term husband Denny. It was an awful and absurd development and I even asked ABC President Steve McPherson leading questions about the “ghost sex” at a TCA panel. His answer: Trust Shonda. I didn’t, but I didn’t stop watching either, so I guess I did. The ghost sex, as prolonged as it was, was a set-up for Izzie’s cancer arc in the second half of the season, an arc that yielded several of the show’s best episodes. Would the cancer arc and Izzie and Alex’s (Justin Chambers) reactions to it have played out as powerfully with, say, two or three fewer ghost sex episodes? Possibly? Probably? As I’ve written before, though, the contract between the TV viewer and a good showrunner is one that includes a lot of faith and “Grey’s Anatomy” has been a show that often tested the faith of its fans, but has found a way to reward that faith at almost every turn.
“Grey’s Anatomy” has specialized in moments that would cause banal TV commentators to natter about “jumping the shark” (the decade’s most overused and essentially valueless and glib small screen judgment), pushing those moments to soap opera extremes and then pulling out of them. Exploding patients? A leading lady who was dead for two episodes and came back? Ghost Sex? The kid trapped in the concrete block? Jane Doe with her her face? Quickie marriages? Ill-conceived sexual dalliances? The Eric Stoltz serial killer arc? Chris O’Donnell? 
These characters have gone through a lot, but they’ve survived thanks to well-defined relationships, heaping doses of humor and more over-sharing of feelings than any sorority house could expect to experience in a decade. Calling “Grey’s Anatomy” a surgical soap opera or a medical slumber party wouldn’t be inappropriate and it also wouldn’t be an insult. “Grey’s Anatomy” is like “Friends” if people kept getting wheeled into Central Perk and dying. There are a lot of tones being balanced in “Grey’s Anatomy” and you can’t pull that off without sharp writing and cast seemingly devoid of weak links.
One thing that’s hard to deny: “Grey’s Anatomy” has taken a ridiculous number of actors whose abilities I didn’t respect before and made them look like award-worthy stars. Patrick Dempsey may have had his career functionally resurrected by “Once & Again,” but he didn’t become a movie star and a heartthrob until Shonda Rhimes made him McDreamy. Katherine Heigl hadn’t necessarily been bad on “Roswell,” but she was destined for a career driven more by Maxim pictorials than by Emmy wins until Shonda Rhimes turned her into a big screen rom-com juggernaut. 
I thought of James Pickens Jr. as Brandon Walsh’s boss from the beach club season of “90210,” until Shonda Rhimes made him interesting and full of gravitas. How many failed shows did Chyler Leigh star in before anybody found any way to make her display any sort of on-air personality? 
Isaiah Washington and Eric Dane? Like Heigl, better known for their bodies than their bodies of work. 
And Justin Chambers? Have you seen “The Wedding Planner” and “The Musketeer”? As bad as those movies are, Chambers only made them worse, but last season his work on “Grey’s Anatomy” would have received Emmy notice except that the voters seem to take the show’s male stars for granted.
I may have spotted Chandra Wilson and T.K. Knight in the background of shows previously and I was vaguely away of Kate Walsh from an assortment of shows, none of which had ever imprinted in my memory, but they were given roles that pushed them from the background into a well-deserved spotlight. And just because we may have known that Sandra Oh or Sara Ramirez were powerhouses or that Jessica Capshaw had the genes to be a decent actress, did we know that they could be this good?
That’s an amazing amount of assembled talent and an amazing amount of high quality material to allow those actors to thrive (mostly). And that’s saying nothing of extended guest turns for people like Kate Burton and Elizabeth Reaser or the top-notch co-stars who have popped up for a single episode or a multi-episode malady.
In any case, what I’m saying is that it’s hard to find a regular actor in the “Grey’s” cast who had ever been better elsewhere. [Yeah, I’ll give you Kevin McKidd, but that shouldn’t take away from his chilling PTSD arc last season. And no, Broadway doesn’t count, so don’t start quibbling with me.]
In the ensemble, no actor has gotten less credit than Ellen Pompeo, the show’s star. Total Emmy nominations for Pompeo? Zero, though she got a random Golden Globe nod in 2007. Part of the reason for that is that Meredith Grey was written to be insufferably annoying for several seasons. She was fickle, irksome and overly entitled and we were forced to root for her to find happiness in several relationships where, at the time, we had no reason to wish her well. She’s also always been saddled with the show’s opening and closing voiceovers which, to this day, I often fast-forward through, or just ignore completely. [If I can’t figure out the theme of the episode without the voiceover, Shonda and company, you probably aren’t doing a good enough job of exploring the theme of the episode.] Pompeo was probably unfairly blamed for a character who was written as intentionally hard-to-love and she probably hasn’t gotten enough credit for how appealing Meredith has generally been since she ceased to be the resident drama queen.
And the show has stayed afloat and strong despite more bad off-screen press than anybody could reasonably be expected to weather. How many of Rhimes’ character decisions have been forced on her by actors begging to leave, actors basically tossing themselves off the show or actors needing time off to capitalize on their fame by making weak movies? That’s not the way writing should be driven, but Rhimes has survived and thrived in dodging and working around decisions that weren’t hers.
Like I said earlier, it probably isn’t “cool” to stand up and say that “Grey’s Anatomy” deserves a place among the decade’s best. Who could blame you for being sick of stories about how one “Grey’s Anatomy” star or another gave birth to a McBaby or had a McMarriage or accidentally released a McSexTape? Who finds it easy to forgive Rhimes for “va-jay-jay” or “Seriously?” or any of a dozen other cutesy catch-phrases that were ubiquitous two or three years ago? 
I guess I’ll try to be “cooler” over the next couple weeks. Cloying? Sometimes. Manipulative? Frequently. Effective? Nearly always. “Grey’s Anatomy” is No. 30 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
Up tomorrow? My four years of college showed me that the title of this comedy is just plain inaccurate.

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