If it’s Thursday night, it’s Grey’s Anatomy. ABC’s hit is consistently the most-watched scripted show on TV. Some 25 million people tune in each week to watch a gaggle of hot young surgical interns juggle unlikely medical situations and thorny personal relationships. At Seattle Grace Hospital, almost anything that can happen does, along with some things that can’t. This season has seen the death of a father, a patient with toxic blood, the loss of a mother to Alzheimer’s, engagements and marriage, a disaster with scores of casualties, and the temporary death of the main character, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo). Through the drama, a national dialogue takes place on the issues of love and marriage, family, abortion, and faith or lack thereof.
Grey’s Anatomy has deviated from the usual romance script. To keep viewers interested, TV shows tend to keep romantic love in a state of perpetual on-again off-again tension: Ross and Rachel in Friends, Diane and Sam in Cheers, Susan and Mike in Desperate Housewives, Kate and Jack or Sawyer in Lost. Viewers want to see Ross and Rachel together, but more than that, they want to experience the romantic point of coming together over and over, a sort of perpetual first kiss. Grey’s Anatomy has done something different. Couples quickly paired off. Dr. Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) and intern Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) live together and recently became engaged. George (TR Knight), devastated by the loss of his father, eloped with Callie (Sara Ramirez). And Meredith has won the heart of Derek, better known as Dr. McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey).
Dr. Burke and Christina have struggled with issues of supporting each other, competing with each other, and opening up to each other. George grappled with his own fears of commitment as well as the need to defend his new wife to his hostile friends. Derek has repeatedly shown Meredith that he will be there, whether after a fight or when she is down. The show has explored what it really means to love another person, moving beyond mere sexual desire. The show’s writers have managed to make interesting and lasting relationships, even if we wish they had also made the characters married.
At least the characters are generally moving toward marriage. And the show, despite the fact that it does away with nearly all sexual mores, does seem to acknowledge that a happy marriage is somehow the desired end of romance. Yet the series has yet to produce a happy heterosexual marriage. The first season saw the end of Dr. McDreamy’s and Addison’s marriage. The chief’s work schedule finally brought about the end of his long marriage. And, sadly, in the latest episode, George cheated on his Callie with Izzy (Katherine Heigl).
The characters’ ability or inability to love is closely linked in the show to their relationships with their parents. Meredith feels abandoned by her father and rejected by her (formerly hot surgeon) mother, now suffering from Alzheimer’s. Christina lost her father at a young age and doesn’t trust emotion. George’s obnoxious but loving family gathers at the hospital to be with his sick father. (Seattle Grace would hardly have any patients at all if it weren’t for family members of the staff.) The death of George’s father, a three-hanky tear-jerker, played up the importance of family and fathers in particular.
However, in the same father-centered episode, a disturbing subplot centered on abortion. Addison (Kate Walsh), the hot redhead neonatal surgeon, revealed that she had aborted a baby fathered by Mark, aka Dr. McSteamy (Eric Dane). In the episode, the baby’s due date arrives. Mark roils with rage toward Addison for aborting both his child and his fantasy of the three of them being a perfect family. Addison is sad and distracted, but she does not question her decision. Rather, she confronts Mark, pointing out his womanizing, his lack of connection to family, and his apparent dislike of kids. Then she nails him: “I did want to have a baby, I did. But not with you. You would have been a terrible father.” When he concludes, later in the episode, that she is right and he would have been a terrible father, the verdict is decided in favor of Addison’s abortion. It is never suggested that fatherhood has turned unconnected, selfish, womanizing men into responsible fathers. This omission is inconsistent with the ethos of a show whose main character, Meredith, is all about overcoming her father’s abandonment and her mother’s disregard.
The drama of Grey’s Anatomy recently spilled into the tabloids. The show’s astronomical ratings and Golden Globe triumph were overshadowed by controversy over actor Isaiah Washington’s use of a gay slur directed at homosexual castmate TR Knight. Mr. Washington was promptly taken to the woodshed and now has played the Hollywood get-out-of-jail-free card by “seeking help.” If his therapy doesn’t work, look for his character to suffer a sudden fatal blood clot, rediscover a lost love in Alaska, or perhaps receive a fantastic offer to be the attending doctor on board the International Space Station. This would be a shame, since Washington’s character, Dr. Burke, although he is no saint, is still the only character who has expressed any faith, and this in a setting where people are constantly dying. Speaking with George (Knight) about George’s father’s impending death, he said, “In my experience, science isn’t enough. This is a matter of faith.” He then offered to pray for the patient.
Grey’s Anatomy, as with other medical dramas, consistently puts forward the idea of doctors as gods in miniature. They save people through their own knowledge and determination. As a patient whose wife was in surgery commented, “It’s out of our hands; it’s up to the doctors now.” In prior times, it would have been “God’s hands.” Meredith calls doctors “worshippers at the altar of science,” and while she admits that unexplained miracles do happen, she never allows that a higher power was behind them.
The strangest expression of lack of faith was in an episode in which Meredith’s heart stops beating after she nearly drowns in frigid water. She enters a strange afterlife in which she’s in the hospital and some of the people who had died in the hospital come to engage in an otherworldly therapy session.
Denny (Izzy’s dead fiancée) and the policeman who was blown up after Meredith removed a grenade from a man’s stomach (things do get exciting there at Seattle Grace) join with two other former patients to discuss Meredith’s lack of will to live. In the end, Meredith makes peace with her mother, finds the will to live, and decides to reanimate her body. She is the master of her ship — perhaps a bit neurotic, but in control. This theology of the triumph of will is best expressed by Izzy, who expounds, while in vigil for Meredith, “I believe we will survive. I believe that believing we will survive is what makes us survive.”
Ironically, Izzy’s statement of self-faith happens against a backdrop in which scores of people have been killed in a ferry accident. Desperate families search for loved ones. Children lose parents; wives lose husbands. In this chaos, Alex has to inform a man that his pregnant wife has been found in the morgue. For this man, not a main character and not a doctor, and therefore not a little god in charge of his and other’s fates, the conviction that “we will survive” is insufficient.
At a deadly catastrophe in real life, as at any hospital, there are chaplains to be found, helping to guide both believers and nonbelievers through those dark hours. They offer prayers when wanted, comfort when needed, and practical help when the mind is numb with loss. They throw themselves with abandon into the well of emotional hopelessness from which the TV writers shy away.
Here’s an idea, Lords of TV: How about just one, rippin’ hot hospital chaplain who offers the patients hope? This character, call him McGodly, could be sexy, moody, and conflicted, perhaps even fall in love with the wrong woman. He could be irritable and overwhelmed, just like the interns at Seattle Grace. He could get into fights with the strictly secular doctors. But he could offer, as Dr. Burke put it, more than science. That would be well-rounded drama!