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Can ‘Grey's’ rise to challenge of Thursdays?

Show needs to step up pace, continue to utilize diverse cast
/ Source: contributor

“Grey’s Anatomy” enters its third season on a roll, with the great expectations that go with the status as one of last season’s breakout hits.

The show went from being a nice complement to ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” to a superstar show in its own right. Fueled by a coveted post-Super Bowl episode, it rocketed to the top of the ratings.

"Grey's" had everything a casual TV fan could want in a late-night drama — sex, death, dramatic medical cases, sex, snappy diologue, gunshots, sex, love triangles, passionate soliloqies and more sex.

ABC rewarded the show with a move to Thursday nights at 9 p.m. ET, a coveted timeslot where it won’t compete against the NFL and will look to become the anchor of the network lineup. Of course, that does mean ABC isn't the only network looking to dominate the evening.

Now "Grey's" won’t have “Housewives” as a lead-in any more, and the show’s propensity for languid pacing and writing characters into corners will come under greater scruitiny as it headlines the new season.

“Grey’s” is not your typical fast-paced prime-time drama, where every week features an episode that can’t be missed. The show plays out more like a daytime soap opera, where it doesn’t take long at all to readjust after a couple of missed episodes.

This is the show’s third season, but the main characters remain first-year interns. Most "Grey's" episodes offer a lot of talk, a little bit of action, and then a lot of talk about that action. As a result, storylines tend to drag on forever, with little or no resolution.

For the first season and a half, that worked out fine. "Grey's" leisurely pace allowed the characters to take center stage, and the relationship between the five young doctors was intricate enough that fans tuned in in droves to see how their favorites were faring. But by the middle of the second season, it seemed like life at Seattle Grace Hospital ground to a halt.

Meredith keeps digging herself deeper
Last season could have been subtitled “The Depression of Meredith Grey.” After being the woman left out when the married Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) turned his love triangle back into a straight line to his wife, Ellen Pompeo’s character slinked further into the emotional abyss. Each week, it seemed like Meredith hit rock bottom, then spent the next episode taking out the shovel and digging further into the bedrock. It all culminated with an ill-fated one-night stand, further isolation, and Chris O’Donnell guest-starring as the vet that may help her out of her misery.

Except that as viewers saw in the season finale, it may all have been for nothing. Grey and “McDreamy” had some prom-night sex (don’t ask). Now the love triangle is back — as a love trapezoid, since O’Donnell is involved as well. 

Two years later, the show is right back to where it was when Shepherd’s wife (Dr. Addison Shepherd, played by Kate Walsh) came to Seattle Grace. McDreamy and Meredith, tortured lovebirds together again despite all the forces driving them apart. That dynamic has been an entertainment staple since “Romeo and Juliet” made its debut on stage four centuries ago. 

Moreover, unlike Shakespeare’s doomed duo, the characters aren’t always easy to cheer for. Dempsey, for example, plays McDreamy as someone who tries to tread the fine line between sensitive modern man and manipulative cad, and often winds up on the wrong side. He seems to know what he wants—Meredith Grey—but not enough to end his marriage for her. He’s trying to string both of his women along as much as possible.

Some shows can drag that dynamic out forever (see: Ross and Rachel on “Friends”), but it would be nice to see Shonda Rhimes and her talented team make a decision on the characters’ fates and move forward. After all, it’s not like they’re hurting for other characters eager to take center stage.

Judging by some of the comments made by the cast, and preview clips made available for the upcoming season, the love triangle may be close to being resolved. At least, for now. But if “Grey’s” fixates on the will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between McDreamy and his choice, the show will be selling short the strengths of one of the strongest ensemble casts on televison.

Challenges of a great cast
“Grey’s Anatomy” consistently brings out the best in its supporting characters by giving them storylines that focus on their interpersonal dynamics, rather than rely on the latest and wackiest medical diseases to drum up viewer interest. It’s not just who’s sleeping with who that counts on “Grey’s,” but also how friendships and working relationships can be affected by romantic entanglements.

Sure, there are the occasional patients linked together bv a pole that has impaled both at the same time. But the benefit of being on after the dinner hour is that the occasional bomb spraying a technician all over one of the characters won’t cause anyone to go to bed hungry.

Of course, having a cast of fan favorites also means that those fans are unhappy when the Seattle Grace employees they love get stuck with minor storylines for a few weeks in a row.  The explosive second-season finale gives the writers a particularly challenging task this time around, since nearly everyone on the show finished the Seattle Grace prom with traditional prom-night milestones and questions about their future.

Dr. Stevens (Katherine Heigl) quit the program, after contributing to the death of her heart-patient boyfriend and the shooting of Dr. Burke (Isaiah Washington) by violating about a thousand different laws and medical ethical standards. In an actual hospital, she’d be lucky to avoid jail, let alone keep her job, but it appears as though she’ll be back at Seattle Grace for another year.

She’ll have an awkward time of it, since Dr. Burke and his recovery from the gunshot that’s left him with hand tremors will undoubtedly be a prime storyline to begin the season, as will his relationship with Dr. Yang (Sandra Oh). There’s also fan favorite George O’Malley (TR Knight) and his new relationship, and the never-ending sarcasm of Dr. Alex Karev (Justin Chambers). Add the love triangle participants, and that’s a lot that must be packed in to 42 minutes of show.

That’s the balancing act that Rhimes and crew face in their attempt to make ABC the new home of Must-See TV on Thursday nights. “Grey’s” showed it could be a ratings powerhouse in its second season, but the Sunday night rivals it faced didn’t have anything approaching the fanbase of “CSI.” It’s up to the “Grey’s” writers and producers to keep the fans focused on the live doctors of Seattle Grace instead of the dead bodies being examined on CBS.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.