"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?"
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.
What's going on here, besides the jerking of tears and the delivery of high ratings? Meredith realizes that she loves others who need her, so she does not want to die. Cristina realizes that to love her friend she cannot give in to her traumatic past. Boyfriend Derek is also changed, according to Shonda Rimes: "He's forced to sit out in the hall, helpless. And he's seeing his worst nightmare come true. Because he's realizing: Meredith has become so important to him and the prospect of losing her is terrifying. . . . Who is he when he can't save a life?"
But does that sense of helplessness lead to God? No. The writer who worked on the episode, Marti Noxon, blogged this explanation: "There's a lot of grief in all of this, but there's great hope too. It's the lesson from 'the other place' too. We are who we love." What is that other place? Noxon writes that much of the episode "takes place . . . where? In Meredith's head? In Heaven? We decided, for obvious reasons, not to get too specific. And we knew Meredith had to go on a journey. But get it wrong and it's 'Touched by an Icy Blue Surgeon.' All will agree that I basically punted that stuff."
Grey's Anatomy is not Touched by an Angel, and "who we love" is not God. Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Grey's skips the first to emphasize a chunk of the second, but without the first the second has no lasting power.
The Lexis-Nexis electronic database lists 1,935 articles in the English language published during February that at least mention Grey's Anatomy. Some concerned the aftermath of a teapot tempest that developed last fall after one of the show's actors, Isaiah Washington, called castmate T.R. Knight a "faggot." Knight soon after declared that he is gay and Washington said he would enter counseling. On the show itself this past season, the character played by Knight married a female doctor.
Grey's is also receiving international press attention, as at least 60 channels around the world broadcast it, sometimes with title changes: In Japan it's Anatomy of Love, in Croatia it's Introduction to Anatomy 101, and in Hungary it's Grace Clinic.
Some liberties in translating dialogue also occur: French TV is fighting depictions of smoking and drinking, so when a Grey's doctor advises a patient to reduce stress by smoking one cigarette daily, translators changed that to have the doctor recommend eating a bowl of rice.
But these articles recorded on Lexis-Nexis rarely include any examination of what Grey's Anatomy indirectly teaches. One commenter on the Crossdaily.com blog, though, wrote, "If people are going to advocate speaking out against Mr. Knight's lifestyle as a sin, then perhaps the show ought to be boycotted on the basis it promotes adultery (sex outside of marriage)." Another commenter wrote, "Even though they are just sleeping together, I liked the way Meredith and McDreamy [a fan nickname for Derek] are actually sleeping, in normal people clothes, and their issue is her snoring and his unshaven face and bad breath. It is very realistic. And I like the way there aren't nudie bedroom scenes. It seems normal and natural."
Grey's does make hooking up seem normal, and at the same time it grips many fans by heightening normality. One commenter wrote to the show's writers about the "Some Kind of Miracle" episode, "I have never cried so hard and so emotionally about a TV show EVER in my life. I know, I know, it's 'entertainment.' I can tell you this, the things you put into last night's show took $2,000 worth of therapy for me to figure out. It was fantastic, raw, real humanity at its finest. I never knew someone else felt like I do." She summarized the reaction she and her significant other had: "We just thought we were crazy. Now we know the real truth-we're just like TV characters!"
The title Grey's Anatomy alludes to a classic medical textbook, Gray's Anatomy, but also suggests a close-up look at what human beings are really made of. That's a common theme in Meredith Grey's opening and closing voiceovers. In describing misery she says, "Maybe we like the pain. Maybe we're wired that way." She describes the problems of "communication: It's the first thing we really learn in life. Funny thing is, once we grow up, learn our words and really start talking, the harder it becomes to know what to say. Or how to ask for what we really need."
The diagnosis is right. The apostle Paul wrote in chapter 7 of Romans about how the law actually leads us to sin. Meredith Grey says that we rebel against parents, and then, "without parents to defy, we break the rules"-including the rules we've adopted for ourselves. She notes, "We throw tantrums when things don't go our way."
The diagnosis is right but the prescription is inadequate. Missing from Grey's Anatomy is God's grace.