In May, a two-hour episode of “Grey's Anatomy” will introduce at least three new characters—and the possibility of a second “Grey’s Anatomy.” Starring in the spinoff’s pilot episode will be Tim Daly, Amy Brenneman, Taye Diggs, Paul Adelstein (from "Prison Break"), Merrin Dungey ("Alias"), Chris Lowell ("Veronica Mars"), and Kate Walsh.
The final name belongs to the only actor currently affiliated with the series; Walsh plays Dr. Addison Montgomery, and the new series will, according to reports, follow her life as she leaves Seattle and moves back to New York. In other words, Dr. Montgomery is leaving Seattle Grace — if ABC decides to pick up the new series.
Such a spinoff would make sense if Kate Walsh’s character was completely peripheral to “Grey’s Anatomy.” But in the two seasons since her introduction, she’s become a central cast member, and pulling her from the show is a mistake, a quick way to dilute the brand and disrupt the formula that’s working well.
Spinoffs have a long history on American television, and producers and networks who want to capitalize on the success of a program, or the popularity of a character, have multiple options.
The popularity of procedural crime dramas has led both NBC and CBS to spin-off their respective franchises, “Law & Order” and “CSI.” Neither, however, stole main characters from the original series, as “Grey’s” proposes to do. Instead, the pilot episode of “CSI: Miami” featured two of the show’s cast members traveling to Florida to assist with a case and then return to Las Vegas, while “Law & Order: SVU” used a supporting character from the original series as a supporting character on the new series.
Sometimes peripheral characters are introduced for the sole purpose of becoming familiar to viewers before leaving to lead their own series. The main characters of “Mork and Mindy” and “Laverne and Shirley” were introduced on “Happy Days.”
Other spinoff series begin after the conclusion of another series. “Frasier” was born after the death of “Cheers,” and followed one of its characters, Frasier Crane, as he left Boston for Seattle. Had Dr. Frasier Crane abandoned his ensemble at the peak of its popularity, as “Grey’s Anatomy” is attempting to do with Dr. Addison Montgomery, “Frasier” might not have become the success it was, and “Cheers” may have been impacted by his absence.
That’s because pulling a character out of an ensemble drama is a much greater risk, and doesn’t seem to offer as much of a chance of reward. Far fewer spinoff series have been the result of main characters who just leave; “Angel,” which spawned from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” might be the most successful in recent years.
How about a Callie Torres-led spinoff?
The new “Grey’s” series, should ABC decide to pick it up, could also go on to become a hit, but there’s no reason for ABC to steal a cast member who’s integral to its already-successful show.
There are plenty of other truly peripheral but interesting and likable characters who could slip out the back door of “Grey’s Anatomy” and into their own compelling series without anyone really noticing: Joe, the bartender; Dr. Han, the cardiothoracic surgeon; Olivia, the “syph nurse.”
Even Callie Torres, the orthopedic surgeon who’s now married to George, would make a better choice. She’s mostly there to create tension between George and his friends, and while her departure could rattle George’s world, he’s often so ambivalent about his relationship with her that he’d probably move on quickly. Mark Sloan, too, could leave without the other characters missing him; of all the show’s leads, he is the most one-dimensional, and considering he seems to be leaving for New York every other episode, his departure wouldn’t be a surprise.
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Another possibility would be for a “Grey’s” spin-off to follow Richard Webber into retirement. While his presence as boss, mentor, and father figure helps keep the other characters in check, the show is primarily fueled by romantic drama, and the void he leaves in the hospital’s administration could be filled by someone who could cause more conflict and drama.
Guest stars also provide possibilities for spin-offs. Finn, the veterinarian who briefly dated Meredith, could power his own series. And the chemistry between Jeffrey Dean Morgan (as Denny Duquette) and Kyle Chandler (as bomb squad leader Dylan) in Meredith’s dream sequence is enough evidence to justify a series set in the afterlife, “Grey’s Anatomy: Dead Men Talking.”
But all of these options, like the Addison Montgomery-focused option, create “Grey’s Anatomy 2,” not a separate series. While carbon-copying a series for a spinoff has worked for “CSI” and other network dramas, procedural dramas are different creatures. “Grey’s” is much more of an evening soap opera than anything else, and disrupting its dramatic core by pulling Montgomery from it would be a mistake.
Upon her introduction, Walsh’s chracter was peripheral, a device used to create tension in Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd’s relationship. She was cold and unforgiving, and offered little beyond provoking a reaction in others. Had the show decided to spin off the character then, before she became entangled in the melodrama of life at Seattle Grace, the new series would have had a better chance of succeeding.
As the second season unfolded, however, the writers quickly softened the character, and she was pulled into the fold. Currently, there’s sexual tension between her character and three others: her former husband, Derek Shepherd; the man she cheated with, Mark Sloan; and intern Alex Karev. She’s also now fully integrated into the hospital’s politics, particularly as a contender to replace Webber as Chief of Surgery.
Removing her from those characters' lives now will significantly impact the dynamics of the show. Perhaps that's the point. Maybe "Grey's" creator Shonda Rhimes and her capable writers recognize that they can't sustain the current narrative, with its precariously balanced Jenga cube of twisted plotlines and intertwined relationships. But pulling one out might just make the whole story collapse.
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