“Grey's Anatomy” may have ended with a cliffhanger, but the show has given up on most of the real suspense.
Yes, when we faded to black back in May, both Izzie (Katherine Heigl) and George (T.R. Knight) were coding — she after suffering a setback in her treatment for metastatic skin cancer, he after deciding to join the Army, stepping in to help a stranger, and being hit by a bus. (Just George's luck.)
But by and large, we know what's happening, and it is the specifics that will come out in the season premiere, spoileriffically titled "Good Mourning/Goodbye."
Some lack of suspense is inevitable. It's one thing to keep a plot point quiet, but tougher to hide whether actors are still under contract for a new season. Last spring, the professional futures of both Heigl and Knight were up in the air: he had been shoved to the back burner all season, and she has a movie career to attend to. Heigl also was widely believed to have a stormy relationship with the show dating back to her announcing that she'd decided not to put her name in for an Emmy in 2008 because her material was so bad.
By early summer, it was well known that Heigl would be returning, and that Knight would not. Sure, it doesn't necessarily mean you know who lives and who dies — George could come back from the dead and then go off to the Army after all. Or Izzie could die, and Heigl could continue appearing in the form of a ghost — though this show would never do something that stupid, would they?
Possible twists aside, fans understood the casting news to mean that Izzie would live and George would die. The fact that George was apparently injured to the point of being unrecognizable made it unlikely that he'd stage a miraculous recovery. Even if he were to live, he doesn't seem likely to be in any condition to go anywhere right away.
Meredith needs maternity leave
Other stories await resolution, too. Meredith and McDreamy got married, unofficially. Remember the Post-It wedding? Sure you do. It came after Alex and Izzie took Meredith and Derek's legal wedding and made it their own (after all, who needs a license or guests who know who the heck you are?). Meanwhile, Owen and Cristina had finally found their way through various hang-ups and problems, and they seemed to be on the road to a functional romance where he didn't attempt to strangle her in her sleep. Not so fortunate was Bailey, who finally left her husband after he threw one too many ultimatums at her about choosing between her marriage and her job.
So where does the show go from here? Logistically speaking, they've got a major chunk of maternity leave to deal with this season, as Ellen Pompeo takes some time off. (Pompeo gave birth to Stella Luna Pompeo Ivery on Sept. 15.) They're also giving Heigl some midseason leave while she shoots a movie, not to mention the fact that she recently adopted a baby. Clearly, centering the season around the love lives of Meredith and Izzie — not an unrealistic direction, based on where we were at the end of last season — would be hard to manage.
The good news is that, for a lot of people, those are already the most patience-testing stories on the show. After all, less Meredith-McDreamy drama (Post-It Notes? Really?) and less Izzie/Alex cancer sadness should open the door for the characters who are notoriously underutilized. The season opener sets up a major professional crisis for the Chief, who spent too much time last season supporting other people's stories, and could use one that showcases James Pickens, Jr. a little more effectively.
The same goes for Callie, for whom the show has struggled to write ever since her attraction to women was discovered. After dispatching Hahn, her first female love interest, in one of the most bizarrely anticlimactic exits you'll ever see, the show paired her with Arizona Robbins in a more touchy-feely, less heat-driven romance. Callie needs a story with some meat on it, and this could give her an opportunity.
More than anything, though, the gap opens a space to deal more fully with the life of Miranda Bailey, who began as an intimidating, somewhat frightening presence and has matured into the most interesting person on the show. Her single parenthood, fueled by her fierce love of both her son and her patients, is ripe for exploration, as is the question of whether her husband will quietly agree to her apparent plan to retain custody
In addition to the opportunities for existing characters, three new doctors — played by Nora Zehetner, Robert Baker, and Jesse Williams — will be added. Attempts at freshening a sixth-season show are inevitable, but it has to be done delicately. With any luck, the writers will be smart enough to write for the strong characters they already have and incorporate these new doctors into those stories, rather than asking entirely new actors to carry a popular show with such a tangled history.
Whatever viewers' levels of satisfaction with the specific resolutions of George and Izzie's flatline emergencies, there are going to be several holes this season — Knight, Pompeo, and Heigl, to varying degrees — and it will take a combination of new blood and a deepening of our understanding of old friends to keep it interesting.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Washington.