31 March 2018
I just got that old feeling. You know, that big bold gaspy kind of Grey’s Anatomy love you remember from back when you loved Grey’s Anatomy? That swoony thing, that teary thing, that FUN thing that the show hasn’t made your heart do in longer than your loyalty complex will allow you to admit. But boy does season 14 ever feel good. It’s like welcoming home an old friend- someone who isn’t any good at Facebook or phone calls so, while they’ve never really been “gone” per se, you did sort of forget why you were such good friends; but now they’re right in front of you and the kindredness of your spirits is making all the happy happen. It’s like that, but you also get to look at Jesse Williams (not that I approve of objectifying Jesse Williams- he’s actually a fairly remarkable person– alas, I am only human).
I’d been up and down on Grey’s for years (hated it at first, loved it for awhile, tolerated it in the middle, fell back in love, got complacent after that) but I really stopped liking Grey’s Anatomy after Mark Sloan died (the beginning of season 9). I stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy completely shortly after Derek Shepherd died (the end of season 11). I have a hard time quitting shows- I’ve usually seen every episode or no episodes- so quitting was a big deal for me. But I just couldn’t take it anymore. The show had gotten dark in that narcissistic way network dramas can. It felt self-indulgent, like a mouthpiece for the creators’ problems with the world rather than the machine for empathy that character-driven storytelling at its best should be. The sluttiness that used to be fun was feeling forced, like an ageing show’s desperation to be hip was taking precedence over somewhat identifiable character motivations. The banter had all turned to snark. The characters seemed angry All The Time, like the whole world was just Miranda Bailey (a character so thoroughly played out that I want to fastforward every scene she’s in). So I quit. I don’t quit TV but I quit on Grey’s Anatomy.
I came back to watch the 300th episode in the fall. I love really long-running shows and 300 episodes is a milestone I wanted to witness whether I was invested in current storylines or not. I was 15 years old when Grey’s Anatomy started and it’s still going. Other than maybe the Backstreet Boys, I can’t think of any continuous piece of pop culture that’s been a part of my life longer. Anyway, I wasn’t going to miss the anniversary episode, especially considering the show’s penchant for nostalgia and the inevitability of callbacks and maybe even flashbacks that I knew would be all over that episode.
But I had another reason for coming back. At some point during the off-season, I spotted a headline that made me think watching a new episode of Grey’s Anatomy wouldn’t annoy me as much as it had in the few seasons I just couldn’t take. Somebody said that the show was “bringing back the funny”. Whether it was largely uninvolved head honcho Shonda herself, or actual showrunner Krista Vernoff, or a random cast member I can’t remember, but that headline made all the difference. I had lots of qualms with modern Grey’s but I could tolerate them all if they brought back the funny. It was the joy that was missing and I was thrilled to find out that somebody at the show knew that was the problem. If you know what the problem is, chances are you can fix it.
And they did! They fixed it! The show still has its bumps but, since episode 300 at least, the funny is back and so is that old Grey’s Anatomy feeling. We’ve got a fun new batch of interns who are earnest and hopeful and funny; they’re not defined by their sexiness or their incompetence but are endearing on their own merits. And they’re an awesomely diverse group without tokenizing anybody, something the original cast did with refreshing casualness on a 2005 level but is much more impressive with 2018 levels of social awareness. A bunch of characters who really didn’t work have been thankfully culled, including the last of those terrible non-Jo season 9 interns (Gaius Charles was good but he left ages ago), and Bailey’s dull, wishy washy husband Ben was spun off onto a Chicago Fire ripoff I have absolutely no intention of watching (Chicago Fire, by the way, is totally underrated; give it a try if you need a new fun network drama that’s kinda serious but not nearly as serious as the others). April is being written out so she’s getting one last big story push and Arizona is helpfully fading to the background as she too prepares to leave (I loved her once but she ran out of story runway millennia ago).
Knowing how to manage character runtimes is the key to a truly great long-running series. The art of cast turnover is one of the trickiest things for any TV show to master and those that can do it well can run forever (this isn’t that relevant but I just feel the need to shout out the greatest casting transitions in TV history- both MASH and Friday Night Lights entered season four with huge casting changes that were invaluable for the storytelling in both series). Introducing new characters worth investing in and gracefully wrapping up stories for actors who want out of their contracts is a tricky feat but even more impressive is the conscientious decision that a character has run their course. The chart of main cast members throughout Grey’s history has very few solid lines indicating that someone has been there for the entire series thus far, and that’s a good thing. An evolving cast with staggered entrances and exits keeps the show fresh without surrendering the history of its established universe, especially if we have an anchor character to hold the show’s memory. And Grey’s has a great anchor. She used to annoy me but, the older and more succesful Meredith has gotten, the more I love her grounding presence on the show and hope Ellen Pompeo never leaves. Her work this season I think proves there’s still story there and a show needs a Hawkeye, a steady star presence that will carry us through. It can’t be Karev (he’s a clutch character who has been at many times in the past 14 seasons the only person I like but he’s too secondary to anchor the show) and it shouldn’t be Bailey or Webber because they’re annoying and I would like them to leave please and thank you. Give me Grey and let the world spin around her, the show can live forever like that.
For a while in the Grey’s dark ages, it felt like they were ignoring their history, and that was part of the problem. In season 14, the show is embracing its history and rewarding long time fans by letting what’s gone before serve as enriching backstory that doesn’t need to be over-explained. A few episodes ago, Jo applied for fellowship programs and Alex kind of lost his shit. Her name came up ever so briefly in what was essentially just a minor complication D-plot but Izzie and the psychological scars of her departure loomed large in those scenes, a perfect example of what makes long-running TV so satisfying. The spectre of Ellis Grey and how she’s informed Meredith’s professional storyline this season is another perfect example.
I particularly loved last week’s episode “One Day Like This”, a triumphant coming out party for Elisabeth R. Finch who has written a handful of episodes before this but none that sparkled quite so beautifully. The episode had three major threads (and, fascinatingly, ignored like half the cast in order to focus on said threads- something the show could stand to do more often with so many actors on the series regular roster). One was a beautiful recapturing of the fizzy romantic tone that made the show fly so high in early seasons. One was a touching and achingly sincere conclusion to a season-long single-character arc. One was the most perfect deployment of long-running history and cast turnover that I’ve seen in quite some time.
The first story is basically just Meredith flirting with a patient- a dreamy transplant doctor from a hospital in Minnesota who collapses while collecting an organ from Grey+Sloan (can we just call it Seattle Grace? “Grey+Sloan” is confusing to write). He’s played by Scott Speedman because someone in the casting department totally gets it (I’m a Noel girl but Ben is what we needed here; the fact that we got a brief Henry mention elsewhere in the episode delighted me to no end. Love a good Felicity easter egg). I haven’t found any conclusive news about whether Speedman will be back but I kind of love the idea of what he might represent in total single-episode isolation. In their episode wrap-up friend chat (a tradition I find just too cute for words), Karev says to Meredith something along the lines of “isn’t it nice knowing it’s out there?”. I love love loved this. The Speedman story was all the charming rom-com banter I want but it was grounded in such an awesome character moment for Meredith, a character whose romantic life was tied to one particular person from literally the first scene of the show (intriguingly called back here). Even if it’s not with this particular guy (it may be more effective if it specifically isn’t with this particular guy), this was the episode that finally really truly opened the door to new romantic storylines for Mer in a post-Der world. She felt that thing she didn’t know she could feel anymore and she met an eligible man the calibre of whom she didn’t know was available anymore. It’s nice knowing it’s out there. God, what a lovely notion.
The second story was the much-needed wrap-up to April’s season-long crisis of faith. An at-times deeply irritating character, I’ve always had the time of day for April (possibly because she’ll always be Hannah Rogers in my heart, possibly because she was in love with Jackson without ever seeming to notice what he looked like). But this story was getting pretty ridiculous. I have a hard time with dramatic spiral self-destruction stories that are so completely 180 but the low-key plainspoken resolution found in this episode hit me square in the heart. The call-out/lecture/inspirational speech given by dying rabbi Eli Rigler could have played as preachy and overdramatic but Saul Rubinek’s affability and the subtlety of Finch’s writing really sold it. I loved that April’s breakthrough comes in a conversation with another person of faith, but a person of another faith. I love that the ability to teach her was a final act of service for Eli and thus one small unselfish gift she could give him (a man of teaching and service). The very last moment of this story pushed too far- that old Grey’s Anatomy pitfall of trying too hard for tears- but, other than that, its earnestness was really moving (in no small part because it was simply executed well).
But it was the last piece of the puzzle that really landed for me. In an episode directed by Kevin McKidd, we got the Owen payoff I didn’t even know I needed. He’s not an original cast member but we’ve spent a pretty significant number of years with Dr. Hunt at this point. We’ve seen him through two marriages and many traumas and, finally, following up on the previous episode’s big revelation, we saw him find his way into the arms of his epic endgame romance Teddy. This was such a cool reward of long-con relationship storytelling. Teddy was a series regular for three seasons many seasons ago. We knew her well and cared about her a lot but she moved on and built a whole life far away from Owen, out of sight and out of mind and literally off the show. But she was always key to Owen’s character- they came with history and built on the slow steady intensification of whatever their situation was through years on the show. She knows Owen better than anyone and, to its credit, the show never failed to prove that with actual action rather than just having her say it all the time. That was never more true than in this climactic episode that gave us this huge cathartic release of tension (and some really swoony oldschool Grey’s romance) then turned it on its head with a stunning and wonderfully honest deconstruction of all the tropes and postures that define Owen’s character. It wasn’t until this final scene that I really realized how little thought I’d put into Owen and why he does the things he does. I’d always just taken him at face value (interestingly not something I do with, say, Karev). The way Teddy turns the big romantic climax of this years-long will-they-won’t-they saga around on Owen is the ultimate “she sees him so much more clearly than even he sees himself” irony and it’s so ugly and achy and human that I honestly think it might be one of the best single scenes the show has ever done, the perfect final goodbye to one of my favourite characters in the series in what will surely be her final recurrence after years being “recurring”.
This whole episode was essentially three interwoven two-handers each set in a single location. It was almost play-like in its intimacy, a quality you’ll rarely hear me complain about. It was simple, it was personal, it was self-aware and thoughtful and, even when it was serious, it was funny. It was the best Grey’s Anatomy has been in so long. I’m so excited about this show after this episode. I didn’t think I would ever say that again.