Now, this is quite an ambitious binge. I say “is” rather than “was” because I am still working on it—I am currently around the middle of season 11, meaning I have spent roughly a full week of my life (spread out over a few months) watching this show. That’s not at all disturbing, but I decided I have more than enough feelings to write about. Anyway, while it certainly has had its ups and downs as is inevitable with any show that has produced 269 episodes and counting, there are a lot of things I find truly admirable and impressive about Grey’s Anatomy.
The pilot is pretty brilliant, immediately establishing clear, high stakes and unique, memorable characters to root for and invest in. The setting produces high-pressure situations on a constant basis—all of the main characters are surgeons, and are literally dealing with life or death circumstances in every episode. On top of the risks that inherently come along with their jobs, there are also personal stakes. In the pilot, we meet a group of five surgical interns—Meredith, Cristina, Alex, George, and Izzie—and it’s quickly determined that they have many steps ahead of them before becoming full-fledged doctors, and it’s likely not all of them will make it. Sure enough, one dies after five seasons, and another is fired shortly after. But what’s also brilliant about this model is that it is intrinsically set up to constantly generate new characters, much like Orange is the New Black. Every few seasons we meet a new intern class. Typically a couple characters rise to the top and become long-lasting parts of the core group, while others either fall by the wayside or get weeded out by one of the many disasters that frequently befall the hospital formerly known as Seattle Grace (exhibit A: the end of season 6 hospital shooting spree, which took out two of the less-memorable interns who’d been introduced earlier that year). And interns aren’t the only new characters we meet—there are new patients every single week, the Head of Cardiothoracic Surgery job has about the same turnover rate as teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts, and a merger with another hospital infused fresh life and a brand new set of characters when the show was starting to feel stale after a weak season.
Even with the great setting chock full of possibility, this show would be nothing without compelling characters and relationships. At the center we, of course, have Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo). Meredith’s life is comically terrible. Let’s see: she watched her new friend from the bomb squad explode after she personally removed a live bomb from a patient’s chest, she was dead for two full episodes after an unfortunate drowning incident (yet made a full recovery), her stepmother died on her operating table after a fluke case of the hiccups and her father blamed her for it in front of the entire hospital, her actual mother was generally the worst and consistently made her feel terrible about herself, her sister died in a plane crash she was also in, she miscarried after watching her husband get shot, she almost bled to death while giving birth in a monsoon/power outage, and I haven’t even gotten to the worst of it (look, I know what’s coming). She proudly describes herself as “dark and twisty,” and her tumultuous but ultimately loving relationship with Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), whom the audience is frequently reminded is God’s gift to neurosurgery, is the central romantic relationship of the show—or at least it is for about 11 seasons.
Even better than the never-ending saga of Meredith and Derek is Meredith’s relationship with her best friend, her “person,” Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh). Despite wanting very different things out of life—they’re both brilliant surgeons, but Meredith also eventually becomes a mother, something Cristina unwaveringly and unapologetically does not want—they’re always there for each other, whether to drink tequila or have random dance parties or cut the other out of a wedding dress after she’s left at the altar. You know, typical friend stuff. When Cristina sadly departs the show at the end of season 10, they very smartly shift Alex Karev (Justin Chambers), one of my personal favorite characters, into the role of Meredith’s on-site “person,” creating fun, new dynamics. Grey’s does friendship very well in general, and I also always enjoyed the unique friendship between Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) and Dr. Mark Sloan (Eric Dane). Their combination of extremely close friendship, unapologetic friends with benefits, and eventually co-parenting a child, along with Callie’s wife, Arizona (Jessica Capshaw), was a relationship I didn’t feel I’d seen on television before.
Speaking of Mark Sloan, I think every Grey’s fan has their own rock bottom emotional moment where they temporarily curse Shonda while crying ugly tears. Mine came at the end of season 8 and beginning of season 9, when Mark died from injuries sustained in the plane crash that also killed Dr. Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh), the love of Mark’s life and Meredith’s half-sister. See, I loved Mark and his particular brand of smug, McSteamy humor, and I loved his unlikely on-again, off-again relationship with Lexie. He was perfect, they were perfect, and as he held Lexie’s hand as she died, telling her how they were supposed to end up together, I understood why multiple people I have talked to gave up on Grey’s in that moment. Even after that heartbreak, I had to watch my favorite character die slowly over the course of two episodes, and to this day I still feel a physical pang of pain whenever I see the words “Grey + Sloan Memorial Hospital.” But this is the stuff you sign up for when you marathon Grey’s, apparently. A heartbreaking storyline involving the unborn child of Dr. Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams) and Dr. April Kepner (Sarah Drew), another couple I grew to love, in season 11 made me question my life choices once more. This show spares no emotional expense, and no one is safe from its wrath.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that so far, over the course of 11 seasons, I have never gotten bored or fed up with the show enough to want to stop watching. Sure, some storylines were a real test: Izzie literally has sex with a ghost for the better part of a season, Bailey develops severe OCD after a few of her patients die from a fluke infection only to be miraculously cured by medicine overnight, Lexie’s intern class gets in trouble for performing back alley surgeries on each other for practice, Alex falls in love with a Jane Doe who turns out to be crazy, and don’t even get me started on the painful attempt at a musical episode. But in the end, the good far outweighs the bad—I would argue that certain multi-episode events (something Grey’s does incredibly well) like the season 6 finale with the hospital shooter and the season 2 post-Superbowl bomb episodes could hold their own against the very best episodes of television to air in their respective years. Despite many reinventions, the core of the show still feels like the Grey’s from the pilot, and that is an achievement worthy of any Harper Avery Award.