It’s hard to believe now that Shonda Rhimes, recent recipient of the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment Breakfast*, started off in showbiz as humbly and nerve-wrackingly as anyone else. Her debut drama and breakout smash hit, Grey’s Anatomy, was only given a mid-season introductory episode order of 9. Yup. ABC had so little faith in the project that it only ordered 9 episodes.
Grey’s Anatomy is currently airing its 11th season. And since its debut Rhimes has gone on to create the hits Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, which started this year. However, my heart belongs to Grey’s.
I’ve always been a sucker for medical dramas. I mean, I used to watch Doctor Kildare and Ben Casey when I was in primary school! It’s only a miracle I never wanted to go into medicine – because with my lousy maths and science skills I’d have been doomed to disappointment.
But those shortcomings never stopped me from loving the hell out of a long list of fictional medicos. I think ER has to be my all time favourite medical drama (although it kind of took a nose-dive in quality those last few seasons – for me, at least) but I loved Chicago Hope too, as well as more recent endeavours like Three Rivers and Mercy and Trauma and Miami Medical. I have vague happy memories of early St Elsewhere (although in the pre-dvd days never saw the whole run) but when I found out the crap twist the producers pulled in the series finale it immediately went on my list of Shows I Must Boycott.
I never watched early Grey’s Anatomy on television. To be honest, I can’t remember now why not, or why I did start watching. I know I grabbed the first season on dvd some time back and fell headlong in love with it. And even though I think – like just about every long-running TV show ever – that the quality did start wandering downhill and to date hasn’t regained the heights of those early seasons, on balance I still believe it’s got some really great drama and storytelling, with great characters and story lines and some truly emotionally impactful episodes and events.
What makes Grey’s Anatomy unique in the pantheon of successful TV dramas – of any genre – is that not only was it created by a woman, and is to this day run that same woman, it’s a story told almost exclusively through the eyes of women. Yes, there are male characters in the show and they have their own story arcs, but they are viewed almost always through the prism of female experience. The most important emotional components – be they the medical crises, the romances, the friendships, the familial issues – are nearly all weighted towards women’s experiences, women’s lives. It’s maybe an 80/20 split, I’d guess. And for primetime TV, that’s really really rare.
The central bromance of Grey’s Anatomy isn’t actually a bromance at all: it’s the incredibly complex and challenging friendship between Meredith Grey and Christina Yang, surgical interns who meet at the start of their intensive student journey at Seattle Grace Hospital. That friendship – with all its highs and lows, confrontations and terrors and love and fear and fury – is the glue and the engine of the show’s first ten seasons. It’s the kind of friendship that usually remains the purview of male characters – which is one of the many reasons that this show is a stand-out in the TV drama landscape.
I can’t think of another primetime network drama that gives or has given equal weight to women’s friendships, women’s lives, women’s experiences of the world. Usually it’s male characters who live in the centre of the drama, male characters whose stories are deemed most worthy of telling. And if there are women in them then those women are generally viewed only in relationship to those men.
(Which isn’t to say that I deplore male stories. I don’t. The list of my favourite shows with male leads, male stories, is very very long. Nor do I think that a show being male-centric automatically means it’s sexist or misogynistic. I’m just saying how nice it is to see the same weight given to women and their stories.)
In Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes turns that state of gender affairs on its head. When you stop and think about it, it’s really astonishing.
But that doesn’t mean the men of Grey’s Anatomy aren’t great characters, or wonderful men with interesting stories. They are. Rhimes loves her male characters and treats them with respect. But she keeps the spotlight pretty much on the women … and in doing so has proven the notion that women-centric storytelling couldn’t possibly be a ratings hit is a load of smelly cow manure. She continues to prove it with her other shows, too.
So why watch the show? Okay. It is a drama, no question, but I’ll not deny it’s a drama very much concerned with feelings. There’s romance, you’d better believe it. There’s a lot of sex, too. It’s fair to say that probably there’s more than a little creative licence taken when it comes to how much sex the characters have on the job. This is entertainment, after all, not a documentary.
But the medicine is sound. The medical stories are often gripping and frequently heart-breaking. So are many of the personal stories involving the characters. And the characters are pretty much always terrific.
One of the things I like best about Grey’s is that the characters aren’t perfect and Rhimes isn’t afraid to explore them, warts and all. The women are smart and successful and driven and courageous and selfish and short-sighted and cruel and kind. Same goes for the men. No saintly doctors in this hospital – everyone screws up at some point, everyone falls down, everyone has doubts and is over-confident and timid and bull-headed and for every wonderful success there’s a shattering failure. They’re all people first and genders second, which I love to see. Show me equality in action. Show me what’s possible and desirable and make it the new normal.
The other great thing about the show is how there’s a great mix of ethnicities but it’s not about the characters’ ethnicities, it’s about are they doing their best work or not? Or they being their best authentic selves or not? Ditto with other life elements. Some characters are religious, some are atheist, some are straight and some are gay but they’re people first. They’re doctors first. And while some social issues are addressed it’s never from a soapbox. I never feel like I’m being scolded or lectured or bullied. Rhimes and her creative team care about humanity, and they tell stories about the commonality of the human experience even when they’re highlighting one particular aspect of it. That’s what I find so inspiring about the series, even when the narrative wobbles a bit … and it does. Even the best shows have a wobble now and then – it’s the price you pay for the insane environment of making TV drama.
As far as my favourite characters go, it’s a toss-up between Christina and Bailey. Christina Yang is unashamedly, unapologetically ambitious. She’s also utterly brilliant, and she knows it, and she refuses to apologise for it ever. She’s also brusque and unsentimental, sometimes shockingly blunt and just as shockingly compassionate. I adore her. She makes me laugh out loud and cry. Sandra Oh is blindingly fantastic in the role.
As for Bailey … Chandra Wilson is magnificent – at least in the early seasons of the show. I have to say I’m not too pleased with some of the stuff they’ve done with her character the last couple of seasons, but early on? Bailey kicked righteous arse, every scene she was in, every storyline she was a part of. She’s a resident, which is the next step up from intern, and she has doctors superior to her, but even so she bosses her bosses around and they let her because she is Miranda Bailey. There is nobody else like her.
And then there’s George O’Malley. My word. George. What a truly stupendous human being. Every so often a fictional character comes along that I wish with all my heart was a real person, because I would love to know them. George is one of those characters. A certain amount of behind-the-scenes bullshit meant that the actor left the show after 5 seasons … but wow. Those 5 seasons with George are truly inspiring. I still miss him. (And I know, that sounds crazy. But that’s how real fiction can get for me!)
There are many great characters in this show. Alex is fun even when he’s being a shite. I don’t always like Meredith but she’s never boring. Derek can be blind but he’s wonderfully decent. Mark is outrageous but at heart a truly good man. Chief Webber is flawed too but is never malicious or cruel. I could name-check all of them … but it’s a large ensemble and they all have great stories.
If you’ve avoided Grey’s Anatomy in the past – for whatever reasons – let me gently (poke! prod! push!) urge you to track down the first season and give it a go. If you love great characters, engaging stories, some humour and some really touching human drama and you’re open to the idea that women’s lives can be as dramatically engaging as men’s, I think you might be surprised.
You can read Shonda Rhimes’s acceptance speech here.