Cover Story

Grey's theology

The popular TV show touts short-lived community as a rare and precious cure

Issue: "Why Grey matters," March 17, 2007

"Grey's Anatomy is currently the #1 television show in the universe." That's what the buddytv.com website announced with some exaggeration, but at least in the United States Grey's reigns supreme: Over 19 million households gravitated to its last show in February, putting it temporarily ahead even of American Idol.

And many Grey's viewers are intense. Proliferating blogs devoted to the show include comments like these: "I'm so excited for tomorrow night! I seriously cannot wait for this episode! . . . 28 hours left! I cannot wait for Thursday!"

One homeschooling mom wrote, "I am totally freaked out. . . . I saw Mer 'die.' She has to live right?!? She'll live-I mean the show is 'her' show right? They couldn't kill her off right?"

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The "Mer" who created such anxiety is Grey's Anatomy's lead character, Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), who normally has first and last words on the show-and many of her comments seem almost biblical in their worldview. Here's one on our natural propensity to lie: "We only see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe, and it works. We lie to ourselves so much that after a while the lies start to seem like the truth. We deny so much that we can't recognize the truth right in front of our faces."

Essentially, show creator and executive producer Shonda Rimes, a product of Chicago Catholic schools, provides a pretty good analysis of contemporary life (solitary, not so poor, but nasty, brutish, and short). Her semi-solution includes no verticality (as far as the central characters are concerned, God might as well be dead) but lots of temporary horizontality, as characters get through their days and nights by developing short-lived community.

Grey's theology, judging from the fan blogs, is not the primary reason why the show is popular. The dozen major actors on the show are good-looking and the plots, woven around the lives of doctors at a Seattle hospital, use soap-opera traditions overlaid by modern bed-hopping that ratchets up relationship tension.

The show is the ratings successor to NBC's No. 1 hit Friends (see "America's virtual Friends-ship," Feb. 24, 1996), except that none of those six buddies did open-heart surgery; also, Grey's Anatomy is racially and ethnically diverse, with four African-Americans or Hispanics in key roles. In addition, Grey's is dark psychologically: Rimes writes of her lead character, "She is somebody, in a very large sense, without a home, without a family, without ties, without (anyone) when you first met her. . . . You all know Meredith's been doing a dance with death for some time."

The three-parter last month that advanced Grey's ratings began with Meredith depressed because her mother raised her to be "extraordinary" and has told her that she is merely a disappointing "ordinary." The plot thickens when two ships in the Seattle harbor collide, with enormous casualties. Doctors head to the scene and, after many sub-stories, a man Meredith is helping starts flailing wildly, knocking her into the cold water. Only a lost little girl, made mute by the horror, sees what has happened.

In the second episode, many minutes have gone by without anyone (amid scenes of horror) noticing that Meredith is gone. Fellow doctor (and boyfriend) Derek asks the little girl, who points to the water. Derek dives in and comes up with Meredith-pale, cold, not breathing. CPR does not work and the doctors despair, but she suddenly sits up and and is in a nondescript room where she meets dead acquaintances and asks, "Am I dead?"

In the final part of the trilogy, titled "Some Kind of Miracle," Meredith initially insists to one of the acquaintances that she fought to survive in the water. He tells her that she gave up and that her death would crush her friends and destroy Derek: "He's still an optimist. If you don't come back from this, you will change who he is." She finally confesses her guilt in wanting to die: "I was swimming, I was fighting, and then for a moment I thought, what's the point?" Her after-death spiritual counselor then offers advice: "That's all you get-moments with the people you love." Meredith sees her mother, who has just died, with new words for her: "You're anything but ordinary." And, like Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life, she decides she wants to live again-and runs down the hall toward an exit from death.

Meanwhile, Meredith's best friend Cristina, a despairing young doctor with a backstory-when she was 9 years old her father bled to death in front of her-has headed to a bar, unable to stand the pain. Just in time she comes back, hugs Meredith's feet, and commands the senior doctors, "TRY AGAIN" to shock a mostly dead heart back to life. This time it works and Meredith is back alive, amazingly without brain damage.

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