Romance on Television: Grey’s Anatomy

I didn’t intend for this to be a series, but after writing about Mozart in the Jungle, I have more things to say about the long-form romances that play out on TV. This fascinating profile of Ellen Pompeo from The Hollywood Reporter gave me thinky thoughts about Grey’s Anatomy.

In the piece, Pompeo makes an unapologetic case for why she’s the highest-paid actress in primetime–and of course it’s the kind of argument I’ve never heard an actor have to make. She’s remarkably clear eyed about her career and thoughtful about what it means to make art long-term and still keep your work exciting and meaningful.

The profile reminded me of my rewatch of the first three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy a few months ago. I continue to find it odd that Grey’s is often omitted from conversations about peak TV. It’s not included in Alan Sepinwall’s (admittedly still interesting) The Revolution Was Televised, for example. While Shonda Rhimes herself often gets shout outs as a powerful showrunner (see here), it’s often as if she’s interesting in spite of the television she makes not because of it.

My own history with Grey’s is complicated. I started watching during the second season, quit a few episodes into the fourth, and then got reeled in again during season six/early season seven.

I’m not watching it right now, and I definitely don’t think it’s a perfect show. But when it’s good, Grey’s can be so good. It can also fail and falter and be preachy and reductive and go to some wacky bad places. The romantic drama in the first 2.5 seasons, however, was top notch, and I want to talk about what I think the show does well.

If you’ve somehow avoided it, Grey’s Anatomy begins with a new group of surgical interns matriculating at Seattle Grace Hospital. The first two seasons take place over one year and center on a resident (Bailey) and her five interns: the misunderstood former model Izzie, the ambitious and brilliant Cristina, the fumbling Nice Guy (TM) George, the struggling asshole Alex, and the titular Meredith Grey. Meredith is the daughter of a famous surgeon and difficult childhood has left her more than a bit of a mess. And, oh, on her first day, Meredith learns that her former one-night stand is one of the neurosurgical attendings and her boss.

Already you can see some of the show’s weaknesses: it opens with a bunch of newbies who must find their footing in this high-stakes world (hello, ER, you opened the same way) and the characters are fairly stock.

Most of the episodes take place over the course of a single shift–so a day or two–and while there are serialized plots that spin out over several episodes or even a season, there’s a definite “patient of the week”/episodic or procedural structure. Sometimes the interplay between the patient’s illness and the feelings of the series regular characters feels productive, symbolic, and enlightening, other times it’s heavy handed, cliche, and obvious.

So why do I still find the show’s first years compelling? Well for starters, the two central romances were fantastic and when it worked, the show managed to tell emotionally compelling stories about what it means to be human and to do it in a diverse, queer-inclusive way. Again, it’s imperfect, but when you switch from Grey’s Anatomy to almost everything else on television, the shift is perceptible. In 2005, it felt like television from the future.

I’m going to begin with the romances and then work through these points, but from here on out, I need to talk in plot spoilers.


Meredith and Derek (the aforementioned neurosurgeon) get off to a romance-novel perfect bad start, and just when it looks like they’ve fixed things and are back on the course to an HEA, who shows up but Derek’s wife Addison. It’s a delicious cliffhanger, and the moment with which season 1 ends. A friend suggested I get the DVD during the summer after the first season aired; I was hooked immediately.

I got extra especially hooked when Addison stayed on the show and wasn’t a villain. Even though she cheated on her husband, Addison is written sympathetically. She’s smart and driven, she’s a great doctor, and she’s ultimately a good mentor, especially to Izzie and Alex. While Meredith and Derek are star-crossed lovers and the show’s most important relationship (maybe; I’ll talk more about this below), Addison isn’t merely an antagonist or a one-note road block, and it’s clear that Derek contributed to the demise of their marriage.

For most of the second season, Meredith and Derek are estranged, and eventually Meredith sees other people. Or more specifically, she begins having a string of one-night stands. When Derek finds out, he’s incensed, and this leads to one of my favorite moments on the show. In a fit of jealousy that he can’t admit to, Derek tries to slut shame Meredith, and she shouts back,

You don’t get to call me a whore. When I met you, I thought I had found the person that I was going to spend the rest of my life with. I was done. So all the boys, and all the bars, and all the obvious daddy issues, who cared? Because I was done. You left me. You chose Addison. I’m all glued back together now. I make no apologies for how I chose to repair what you broke. You don’t get to call me a whore.

It’s powerful writing, and Pompeo plays it perfectly.

If we set aside the show’s realism (which I’m not in a position to critique and, frankly, I just don’t care about), probably the biggest knock on the early seasons of the show is Meredith herself. She’s whiny and narcissistic, I heard people say. Some viewers couldn’t stand her voice, her facial expressions, and her selfishness.

But the same critics loved Jimmy McNulty on The Wire, Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, Don Draper on Mad Men, and Walter White on Breaking Bad. What gives? Meredith and Cristina–who I’ll get to in a moment–are female versions of peak TV’s antihero, but they are/were rarely read that way. If anything, Meredith and Cristina’s imperfections and simultaneous insistence that they are still worthy of love made them more interesting to me.

And if anything, you can make a stronger case for Cristina as antihero than Meredith. In the show’s early seasons, Cristina, like Meredith, has a secret affair with an attending–the cardiac surgeon Burke–but rather than feeling repetitive, the two central romantic relationships comment on each other. Meredith and Derek are dark and twisty and struggle endlessly with whether they bring out in the good in each other or whether they’re too steeped in deception and pushing each other away to be happy together. They are angst personified.

Burke and Cristina also start off hiding their relationship–and insisting that they aren’t having a relationship and merely hooking up–and they do lie to each other. Notably, Cristina hides a pregnancy from Burke (a pregnancy she intends to abort) and doesn’t give up her apartment when he asks her to move in. But for a while, Burke and Cristina manage to communicate honestly with one another, to make each other better, and to grow.

This comes to a halt after Burke is shot in the shoulder at the end of the second season. Burke and Cristina both need Burke to be a surgical god, and when his injury imperils his professional future, they have separate crises which they never talk about directly. Burke improves a little, though he continues to have a tremor in his hand, and Cristina plays his Lady Macbeth.

Seriously if you haven’t rewatched the early third season, I encourage you to do so. The Izzie stuff is silly (I’ll get there in a moment), but the Burke and Cristina arc is terrific. She helps him cover up his injury by assisting on all of his surgeries, watching for signs of his tremor, and then stepping in as necessary. He hates it and is going to put an end to it, but then another important case will crop up and he doesn’t. Until eventually Cristina confesses to the chief.

And then they don’t talk. There’s just this glacial silence episode after episode, and it’s so painful because they’ve spent much of the show having a far more healthy romantic relationship than almost anyone else. When they finally do resolve things, he ups the stakes by proposing. It’s both deeply romantic, and the beginning of the end for them. By insisting that they get married, and then that the wedding becoming a big traditional thing, Burke put Cristina in an untenable situation. When he realizes this and jilts her at the alter–even though he’d been fired from the show for on-set drama–it made thematic sense and character sense to me. Loving Cristina means giving her freedom; Burke couldn’t do that.

(There are also these lovely bookends where the third season begins with Meredith helping Izzie take off her prom dress and ends with her helping Cristina out of her wedding dress.)

But yet so much else happening in the third season is over the top in a bad way. While the show obviously doesn’t take place in the real world, at the end of the second season, some of the plot developments strained even my credulity to the point of breaking specifically Izzie’s arc.

The briefest version of this is that Izzie fell in love with a patient who needs a heart transplant. In order to “help,” Izzie deliberately destroys his artificial heart device so he’ll move up the transplant list. Oh, and at the same time, the interns are arranging a hospital prom for another patient (hence the prom dress).

So many of season three’s problems could have been avoided, in my opinion, if Izzie had left after season two. Keeping her on as a doctor in this context was nonsensical, and she never had a good storyline again.

The only problem? Katherine Heigl sold the shit out of the material. The moment when she’s sobbing, “What about me? I’ll never be able to forgive you for making me love you”? Gah! It shouldn’t work, but it does. The display of emotion is naked and excessive to the point where it’s almost hard to watch–but there in the realm of too much, Grey’s sometimes manages to find truth.

I’ve written about the critical concepts of the sentimental and melodrama before. Part of why I think Grey’s isn’t considered a “prestige” show isn’t simply that it sometimes has bad episodes or arcs (which all shows do), but because it unironically believes in the power of empathy and emotion. It’s a show about doctors, science, and medicine sure, but what it truly glorifies is human connection and affect. When Grey’s focuses intensely on a moment of decision or on an emotional reversal (e.g., a character dying in surgery), it’s not just manipulating the viewer’s emotions–though I fully admit it’s sometimes that–it’s making metaphorical arguments about justice, humanity, life, and death.

Two of my favorite season two episodes are also some of the most over the top: “Into You Like a Train” and “The End of the World as We Know It.” In the former, two strangers injured in a train derailment are skewered on the same piece of metal. The surgeons have to evaluate their injuries and then decide how to operate. They eventually preference the care of the person whose injuries are less serious, since they have a better chance of saving his life. “What about her?” Meredith cries in the ER. “We can’t just abandon her.” In that moment, Meredith is over-identifying with the patient in a way that’s probably unprofessional–and certainly foreshadows Izzie’s arc later in the season–but it’s almost a form of the pathetic fallacy.

In the nineteenth century, when this sort of emotional identification and knowledge were valorized and not denigrated, the central question wasn’t about whether the emotion counted or some such but whether the emotion is true. Emotional falseness was what people worried about, not emotion itself. (Karen Halttunen’s Confidence Men and Painted Women is great on this if you’re curious.)

So is the emotion on Grey’s truthful?

In some cases, yes, and specifically those related to the show’s true central relationship: Meredith and Cristina. While much of Grey’s energy is taken up by who is sleeping with whom or lying to whom or crushing on whom, it’s this friendship that matters the most.

Meredith and Cristina are honest with each other even when they aren’t with their romantic partners. They help each other through heartbreak, through bosses hating them, through difficult cases, and through life changes. They truly were each other’s “person” in ways the men in their lives didn’t understand and couldn’t supplant. No matter what else is happening on the show, I believe in every moment Meredith and Cristina are on screen together, which is a testament both to the writing and to Ellen Pompeo and Sandra Oh’s acting. In the sentimental and melodramatic world of Grey’s Anatomy, the emotional truth of Meredith and Cristina’s friendship covers a multitude of sins.

In closing, I can’t believe I haven’t talked about Miranda Bailey, who is probably my favorite character and hands down, the best doctor. (Seriously. Seriously.)

Or George, who definitely suffers in rewatch and now seems like an insufferable, entitled Nice Guy (TM) who manipulates Meredith into sleeping with him and then tortures her and everyone else about his pain all while treating his new girlfriend, the totally kickass orthopedic surgeon Callie, like crap.

Or Alex, who never seemed to get a good storyline, at least when I was watching.

And there’s a ton to say about how the show both featured but also sometimes fetishized LGBT characters. Many of the 2005/2006 storylines with LGBT characters are clunky to my 2018 eyes, but that’s also evidence of how much better and more inclusive pop culture is now.

Despite its flaws, Grey’s Anatomy was and probably still is compelling television, and when we omit it from television criticism, we say more about our own cynicism than we do about popular culture.

2 thoughts on “Romance on Television: Grey’s Anatomy

  1. I love Grey’s Anatomy. I’ve been watching it since Season 1 and I’m still watching in Season whatever we’re on, 13 and 14. What keeps me watching is Meredith, and her sister Maggie, Jackson & April, Owen (OMG) and his love affair with Cristina, and then Derek’s sister Amelia, Webber falling in love again, Alex and Jo. No, it’s not perfect but I just can’t quit it.

    1. I know what you mean because writing this post, I was like, “wow, I really like this show. I should start watching again.” Hehehe.

      But it does big ensemble cast and big emotion very well.

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