My TV

18 May 2019

Grey’s Anatomy, The Privilege of Time, and the Death of Shondaland’s For the People

By // TV

I’ve been thinking a lot about Grey’s Anatomy lately. That show, the flagship production of the Shondaland empire, ended its 15th season on Thursday with an excellent episode of television. It was excellent for a lot of reasons, a remarkable number of which are the direct result of it having been the fifteenth season finale of a show that shows no signs of ending anytime soon.

That’s not a popular take. General consensus about television, serialized or otherwise, has often been that the longer a show exists, the more tired it becomes. You hear talk of repetition and story fatigue as though they’re the inevitable symptoms of age rather than what they really are, just plain bad writing. In our current sprawling, fractured mediascape full of anthologies and limited series, there is something truly special about a television show that is able to and allowed to thrive in the throwback network model on which television as a medium was built- create a world, tell stories within it. It’s a model that allows for infinite stories the same way the real world contains infinite stories. You zoom in, you zoom out, you move people along, you grow them up, you introduce new people, and maybe it’s not all perfect (it definitely won’t be) and maybe some of it repeats itself (it definitely will) but it will have that magical television quality that’s all but gone in 2019, that feeling of a fully fleshed-out world you get to visit once a week to stop in and see people you’ve come to know well.

That’s what I think is still working about Grey’s Anatomy. Or, not ‘still’, really, working better now than ever. I didn’t used to like Meredith Grey. She started out whiny and precious, performing her “dark and twisty”ness like an elevator pitch of a character rather than an actual personality. Fifteen years on, she’s one of the most well rounded characters on television, so detailed and crystal clear that she barely needs to speak for the audience to know where she’s at and why and where she’s coming from. Because we saw what she went through to get there. The show has been running so long that a character like Camilla Luddington’s Jo, who was introduced in season nine, has had the chance to explore multiple deep corners of her backstory a shorter lived show could never dream of even hinting at.

My current favourite characters are Kim Raver’s Teddy Altman and Jake Borelli’s Levi Schmitt, the former a mid-run regular who left in season eight and returned six seasons later with more story to mine and the latter a throwaway joke introduced as part of the ever-rotating intern pool at the beginning of season fourteen only to become the beating heart of the show by the end of the following year. The evolution of Schmitt was gradual, a scene or two an episode; he was never nor is likely to ever be the focus. Nor should he be. But on a show like Grey’s, there’s space for the 13th man on the call sheet to be a standout character. More importantly, there’s time. A network TV skeptic, the ones who argue that no show can make it to 15 seasons without “getting old”, might argue that Schmitt’s story beats are repetitive. And they’d be right.

The astute fan (or, more likely, a binger for whom season three wasn’t twelve years ago) will recognize the early screwups and geek-gets-confident arc as belonging to one of Greys’ founding characters George O’Malley. George was written out of the show a full decade ago and the relitigation of what broadly could be called his territory feels, if anything, overdue. In large part because they didn’t do George right the first time. Where George was shoehorned into a series of unrequited or unconvincing romances, Schmitt is anchoring the show’s first major male-male love story and playing some really interesting notes about self worth and romantic power dynamics. On the job, George was never a convincingly competent doctor, shedding his “007” nickname mostly because the other doctors grew fond of him on a personal level. Schmitt, on the other hand, is only really held back by shaky confidence, a roadblock he’s chipping away at gradually to move from “Glasses” to “Bloodbank” to “Schmitt” rather than being miraculously cured via one heroic moment in an elevator. Schmitt’s similarity to George is built into the show as a sort of haunting for the handful of characters who’ve been around long enough to know both men. He’s both a nod to the show’s legacy and a chance to do better. Any less than fifteen seasons and one of Grey’s Anatomy‘s best characters never could have existed.

Which brings me to For the People, the latest show to come out of Shonda Rhimes’ massively succesful ABC drama farm and also the most heartbreaking victim of this spring’s slew of cancellations.

I loved For the People, creator Paul William Davies’ clear-eyed but undyingly hopeful legal drama about the Southern District of New York (if SDNY sounds familiar, it’s been, um, in the news lately). Featuring stage legend/Nancy McNally actress Anna Deavere Smith in a sparingly used but incredibly impactful role and Eli Attie on the writing staff, For the People had an unmissable West Wingishness to it with its parade of smart people trying to do the right thing and occasionally making big speeches both spontaneous and realistically contextualized (all the opening and closing arguments in the courtroom scenes were things of real beauty). But it has plenty of identifiable Shonda Rhimes DNA as well (though Rhimes was heavily influenced by Sorkin so it’s not as if “smart people trying to do the right thing and occasionally making big speeches” isn’t also a hallmark of every one of her shows). For all its marble pillars and topical justice issues, For the People was never too high and mighty for joking office banter or a little romance. It had a touch of that addictive Rhimes soapiness without the theatrical muchness that characterizes the more absurd moments of Greys (ie: ferry boat crashes) or the entirety of her kookily melodramatic shows like Scandal or How to Get Away with Murder.

For the People struck a really compelling tone that allowed it to deal with serious, complicated issues without feeling like work. The pace was quick, the production was slick but never over-stylized, the dialogue was funny and smart and only rarely a bit too on-the-nose (episode 208 is the only time I felt really lectured at all series). Four of the show’s principal characters quickly became my four favourite characters on network television. The others needed more time to start to match the complexity of the breakout stars, time For the People was never given.

When I think back at the first twenty episodes of Grey’s Anatomy– because a mere twenty episodes is what For the People got over the course of two seasons- Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang is the only character I remember feeling attached to. Izzie wouldn’t break out until the end of the second season (37 episodes). It’d be at least another year before there seemed to be much point to keeping Alex Karev around; Alex Karev who would eventually become the anchor that holds the entire show in place. It took almost a decade for me to learn to love Meredith Grey so the relative mediocrity of For the People‘s leading lady Sandra didn’t faze me much at all until it became clear that I’d never get the chance to learn to love her (in fairness to Sandra, I’ve never found Britt Robertson all that inspiring; it was the performance that needed to rise to the writing, not the other way around). Jasmin Savoy Brown’s Allison also didn’t click with me right away and the characters of Seth and Jay, though charming, spent too much time as comic relief to really stand out with such a low episode count. But those are the people I wanted to spend the next few years getting to know. The next many years. The next however many years ABC could possibly let me have. The Southern District of New York is not going to run out of cases; For the People could have had story material through to the end of network television as we know it. Or at least as long as Grey’s Anatomy is still on the air.

Even with only twenty episodes, I felt like I knew Kate Littlejohn and Leonard Knox. Doe-eyed Susannah Flood showed up fully formed from the first moment of the pilot as uncompromising by-the-book AUSA Littlejohn. Regé-Jean Page did the same as her show-off colleague Knox. Their characters shared one of the most intriguing relationships on the show, a sort of explicitly non-romantic maybe-romance born out of mutual respect so strong they didn’t need anything else. They shared a trajectory of slowly revealed humanity, Knox’s well-hidden insecurities eventually coming to bear and Littlejohn’s mistakes forcing her to reckon with the inflexibility of her value system. They were captivating creatures, ostensibly supporting characters but such fully realized ones that by the second 10-episode season they felt like old friends. I could have gladly spent fifteen years in their company.

Littlejohn in particular was such a rare creation in the television landscape, or any medium for that matter- a queer woman whose sexuality never needed to be labeled, a female character allowed to lead with reason without being punished for emotion, a hyper-organized intellectual praised for her competence rather than mocked for her intensity. The series finale saw her promoted above Knox. What I wouldn’t give to see the fallout.

The reason for Littlejohn’s promotion comes down to the show’s real greatest strength. Embodied in the characters of Roger Gunn and Jill Carlan was the show’s central ethos- that two things can stand in opposition without being right and wrong. That’s an oversimplification of a concept expounded upon with remarkable consistency over twenty episodes, a concept far too inscrutable for a mere twenty episodes. Ben Shenkman played the chief of the criminal division in the office of the US Attorney. He was hard-nosed, cocky and aggressive, accustomed to winning and determined to put the fear of god in the young attorneys under his purview. Hope Davis played his equal and opposite, a straight shooting federal public defender who prepares her freshman lawyers for the reality that they’re going to lose nearly every battle they fight but they have to fight anyway. Jill’s guiding practicality and astonishing sense of duty created an internal friction that made her endlessly fascinating. Her complex relationship with Roger despite his antagonistic position in her professional life quickly became For the People‘s most addictive dynamic. Shenkman and Davis were a fantastic pair, both actors of a calibre you just don’t expect to see on a marginal ABC drama. Shenkman in particular can pack a world of feelings into a simple half-smile and watching him breathe life into the character most easily positioned to be a villain was a privilege.

But Roger never was a villain, and not just because Shenkman’s performance was a thousand times too empathetic to allow that. So much of For the People‘s point was that none of them were the villain- not the prosecutors nor the defence- no matter how antagonistic their cases got. Two smart people who mean well can stand on opposite sides and argue and neither of them has to be wrong. They can fight each other without hating each other. For the People made room for the reality that two things can be true at once and watching the show forced you to try and see things from the opposite side. If you want easy answers and good guys vs. bad guys, go watch Bull instead. Bull, by the way, was renewed for another season. But we’ll have to say goodbye to For the People.

It wasn’t a perfect show. I personally don’t believe that any show can be perfect but certainly there are types of shows that can get pretty close- limited series, bingeables, anything where the end is set before the beginning is even written. But that’s not what this was. For the People was a network television drama. That’s an oldschool model, one that uses commercial ad breaks and 22-episode seasons and sets up the world of a show so that stories can be told within it for as long as it takes to get a good syndication deal. A show like that can grow and change and fail and get up again. And if the right talent is behind it, it will become better with age. Grey’s Anatomy did. For the People definitely would have. It’s the lost potential that hurts the most.

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