I am oft plagued by the question of why, seven years down the line, people still sit through Grey’s Anatomy each week. Like many others, I bowed out when brain tumor-ridden Izzy Stevens began to have regular sex with her dead fiancé’s ghost. While these encounters were (thankfully) clearly masturbatory as opposed to necrophillic, the plotline was drawn out for an excruciatingly long time, to the extent that I wondered whether the writers had found their decision to kill off adorably-dimpled Denny Duquette premature, and were attempting to rectify it. They clearly had a thing for Jeffrey Dean Morgan, after all. They’d brought him back once before in Meredith’s dream sequence in the third season (which occurred while, in a not at all implausible chain of events, she spent forty-five minutes submerged in frigid Puget Sound waters attempting to voluntarily drown herself, only to fully recover emotionally and physically by the following week), along with that really adorable bomb squad guy who was unfortunately blown up in the second season by a bazooka hidden in that patient’s body cavity. Sad times.
Many would agree that in its first couple seasons, Grey’s Anatomy was a well-written drama with enough digressional dialogue and irrelevant conversation to make you believe that these beautiful doctors bore some resemblance to real people. Sure, Seattle Grace somehow managed to attract every single out-of-ordinary medical case in America (pregnant man, boulder-sized tumor, penis fish, broken penis, bitten off penis). But the show struck a good balance between humor and drama, with enough medical jargon thrown in to confuse yet satisfy the average viewer.
As the show hit its stride, Shonda Rhimes could have made the decision to keep Grey’s Anatomy finely tuned, with succinct and believable plotlines that may have not made it infinitely sustainable, but would have let it bow out of primetime after 100 episodes or so, ready for syndication and with some semblance of dignity. Instead, however implicitly, she chose the soap opera route. Everyone began to sleep with one another. Everyone broke up; everyone got back together. Everyone was held at gunpoint at one point or another. George died. Izzy, with a 5% chance of surviving her cancer, made a miraculous recovery. In true soap opera fashion, the resilient doctors of Seattle Grace survived many a scarring incident with only an episode or two of mourning, before returning entirely to normal. The show went from “believable enough,” to “never-in-a-million-years-would-a-doctor-say-screw-the-DNR unrealistic.” And because of that, Grey’s could easily last another ten seasons (if the entire cast doesn’t quit by then. The drama behind the scenes is juicy enough to be its own show).
But even if Grey’s were to be cancelled, it’s doubtful Rhimes would falter. She has two other shows on the air: Private Practice (I bowed out when Violet unwillingly had her baby cut out of her womb), and the recently-premiered Off the Map. Off the Map, which deals with beautiful people saving lives through Doctors Without Borders, is essentially a delightful mash-up of Grey’s Anatomy and LOST, so of course I had to check it out.
The only real difference I could discern between Grey’s and Off the Map is that, in the latter, the doctors are grimier and less professional. Now we get to goggle at a troubled rebellious doctor with a mysterious past instead of troubled uptight doctor with a mysterious past. (For more wild differences between the two shows, check out this handy NYMag chart Kate sent me.)
So what exactly is it about Shonda Rhimes that makes her shows so addicting? By the time you watch her third television foray, her formula becomes somewhat predictable.
In the pilot episode, every major character will have some sort of monologue about why they’re here, starting over in [insert new environment of your choice.] The usefulness of the monologue is two-fold. Firstly, it serves as a great hook. The number one reason TV shows fail is that people don’t want to invest in the characters. Monologues are wonderfully contrived ways to make you suddenly emotionally invest in and empathize with this fictional person whom you have little to nothing in common with. And secondly, it’s a wonderful casting and audition tool. When cute, untroubled Tommy Fuller pours his heart out to a non-English speaking South American man (we aren’t told what country we’re in. I’m not even sure the doctors know themselves) about his slacker, unfulfilled past in order to convince the man to let him treat his wife, that’s most likely the speech that got Zach Gilford the part. (Well earned? Meh.)
In all of Rhimes’ shows, the medical cases somehow serve as convenient metaphors to the doctor’s own personal lives (What purpose would these sick people serve did their illnesses not neatly parallel our favorite characters’ personal strife?) Unfortunately, metaphors are not so consistent and naturally-occurring in real life. (At least, they aren’t in mine). In all her shows, the characters give long-winded, eloquent and uninterrupted monologues, free of a single “um” or “uh.” Unfortunately, in the real world, we aren’t born with the ability to pontificate naturally at any time (at least, I wasn’t.) But then again, television is not like the real world. If it were, it would not be nearly as exciting. Shonda Rhimes does what she does well. She has a successful formula for creating largely unrealistic, but relatable on some base level, characters that keep us tuning in week to week. It doesn’t hurt that they’re all beautiful, either.