There’s not a juicier target on television right now than “Grey’s Anatomy” and its tooth-grindingly god-awful story of Izzie Stevens believing she’s having sweaty sex with Denny, her deceased fiancé. No matter what the explanation turns out to be — and it almost has to be some variation on a neurological problem, if Izzie thinks she’s having sex with a ghost — there’s no undoing the damage.
Worse yet, it’s hard not to suspect that the story is terrible on purpose, given that Izzie's portrayer, Katherine Heigl, was widely attacked for (quite correctly) criticizing the show’s writing last year. Is the Dead Denny story just writers’ revenge? Petty as that sounds, it’s the simplest explanation for this mess, and isn’t that the one they say is usually right?
But Izzie’s storyline is not the only problem; it’s just the most compactly absurd.
The interns’ Frankenstein-like madness, in which they found an enormous abandoned space in a budget-crunched hospital and transformed it into a parlor of medical horrors, is almost as bad. They began by drawing each other’s blood, but soon, they graduated to removing a perfectly healthy (or so they thought) appendix. The idea that a room full of soon-to-be doctors could perform an unauthorized, unsupervised, unlawful surgery in an uncontrolled environment without anyone having enough qualms to put a stop to it is about as believable as … well, ghost sex.
Someone would have said, “If we are caught, we will never be doctors. We will be buried with only our student loans. We will go to prison. We will destroy the hospital.” Someone would have that much sense. To suggest otherwise is insulting.
Kevin McKidd is being wasted
Where there was potential, it’s been squandered. This fall, “Grey’s” managed to land Kevin McKidd, formerly of NBC’s “Journeyman” and HBO's “Rome.” He debuted as Owen Hunt, a former Army doctor who brooded, made his own rules, and kissed Cristina (Sandra Oh).
The show’s ostensible lead storyline has sputtered as well. Meredith and Derek, at last season’s end, had reached the moment their fans had waited for — they finally got it together, as it were. No secret wives, just plans for domestic bliss.
And since then … nothing. It is the worst-case scenario of the “happiness is boring” theory of television couples. Petty arguing over credit for medical research doesn’t sustain a story, and an episode in which Derek had to be educated about how important Meredith’s friends were to her made no sense, given that she had operated as a many-headed social hydra with those same friends for as long as he’d known her. Anyone not prepared to sneeze during sex and have Meredith’s friends say “God bless you” wouldn’t be sleeping with her in the first place.
Meanwhile, one of the few characters who often survives melodramatic plots by openly calling them on their ridiculousness — Mark “McSteamy” Sloan — wound up in one of the silliest, and quite honestly the ickiest, ones of all. Lexie abruptly presented herself at his apartment and tore her clothes off while muttering “teach me” in a way that screamed of imbalances of power and very, very bad reasons to have sex with a substantially younger student. He did it anyway, and now he seems vaguely gross instead of rakish.
Not to be forgotten is the “ending” to the abortive romance between Callie and Hahn, which started with a kiss in last season’s finale and presented the possibility of an actual adult romance between interesting and strong women. Things began to go awry when a potentially funny sideline about Callie seeking sex advice from Sloan turned salacious and uncomfortably specific. Suddenly, with no plausible buildup, Hahn and her portrayer Brooke Smith disappeared entirely — from the romance, from the hospital, and from the show, among rumors that ABC blinked at the lesbian storyline.
The obligation of a drama is to be a good drama, not necessarily to serve social purposes. But when your show is as high-profile as “Grey’s,” and when that show has a history of losing Isaiah Washington, who never recovered after uttering an alleged on-set homophobic slur (and then re-uttering it at the Golden Globes in a rather horrifying attempt to be funny), you have to treat your first major gay relationship with a modicum of care, and the show didn’t. Choosing not to pursue the story is fine; banishing a character into a parking lot as if it’s a “Twilight Zone” cornfield is not.
As was the case when Heigl complained about the writing, the handling of the Callie/Hahn story seemed to foster bad feelings behind the scenes. When Patrick Dempsey was asked to comment on Smith’s departure during an appearance on “Ellen,” he pulled out a paper and read what he said was a network-provided response, dripping contempt from every word.
There’s more. T.R. Knight, who has played George since the series pilot, is widely reported to be negotiating an exit from the show — not an unreasonable decision, given that George has done nothing this season except sit by while Lexie looks at him moony-eyed. And even that story seems abandoned now that she’s chasing Sloan.
Glimmers of hope
Ultimately, the problem lies in the writing. The actors still work together well, and some of the characters have deep reserves of possibility. Chandra Wilson as Bailey is still one of the finest and funniest actresses on television, and Eric Dane as Sloan is an underappreciated comedian who plays a delightful winking lech and shouldn’t be stuck acting like a genuinely predatory lech.
If these poor choices are ratings stunts, they’re not working. Viewers have left since last year, and they’ve left since the start of the season.
But all is not yet lost. There are glimmers of hope when the show focuses on the fundamentals of the relationships it’s taken care to build — Meredith and Cristina’s friendship; the residents’ ever-prickly relationship with Bailey and her similarly complex interaction with the Chief. Even romantically, if Izzie weren’t distracted by Denny’s ghost, there would be some appeal in the way Alex has finally started trying to pull himself together and be a potentially good boyfriend to her — a glimmer of growth that has been lost in the Dead Denny Shuffle.
There are rumors that Heigl is on her way out and that Knight may be gone soon, but what the show needs is not a different set of characters. It needs better writing. No one expects “Grey’s Anatomy” to be “Mad Men,” but there’s enough talent for a pretty satisfying soapy drama if the dead sex partners, secret surgeries, and backstage squabbling will get out of the way.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Washington, D.C.