THERE are TV fans, and then there are "Grey's Anatomy" fans.
"Patrick Dempsey, when he nearly kisses Meredith, it's like nearly kissing me," said 37-year-old mother of two Jacki Moore of Burbank. "I've gone to a few of the fan sites and I look for pictures, and I Google his name pretty much every day to see if anything comes up. Oh, I'm telling you, I'm ready to put a poster up on my wall."
"I just feel like I can relate a lot to Meredith and I'm rooting for the underdog, but, oh, I'm a McDreamy fan," said 23-year-old business student Karyn McQueen, referring to Dempsey's character. "I want him and Meredith to be together. You see the way he looks at her. He really does love her."
A bona fide hit in its first season, "Grey's Anatomy" this year has leaped into that rarefied air of pop culture sensation, joining the ranks of "Lost" and, for a time, "Desperate Housewives." It is beating the "CSI" juggernaut in the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic for the entire season, and twice has garnered a larger audience than its Wisteria Lane lead-in when both shows aired original episodes.
From obsessive water cooler chatter to "Saturday Night Live" spoofs, the fictional surgical ward of Seattle Grace Hospital has quickly seeped into the American consciousness, particularly for women.
With "Sex and the City" available only in syndication and "Desperate Housewives" losing its glow, women are finding a replacement in "Grey's," a show with several strong female roles focusing largely on the travails of its title character, Meredith Grey. And while the show's repressed love affair may have women swooning, they're also responding to the evolving friendships between the five interns and the doctors on staff.
"Grey's" plays like a cross between the drama of "ER" and the camaraderie of "Friends," with some spicy female empowerment a la "Sex and the City" in the center. Fans can't get enough of interns Meredith (Ellen Pompeo), Izzie (Katherine Heigl), Cristina (Sandra Oh), George (T.R. Knight), Alex (Justin Chambers), surgical resident Bailey (Chandra Wilson) or Dr. Burke (Isaiah Washington). And then there's Derek Shepherd, Meredith's love interest. Dubbed McDreamy by the female interns, Dempsey has soared in this role to stratospheric highs on the heat meter since the pilot.
"What I find interesting is that there are some people out there who take the show very seriously," said creator Shonda Rhimes. "But then I think about how strongly I felt about 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and how emotional I was about what happened to those characters. So going from being a fan to somebody who has her own show, I definitely respect it. You come into people's homes in a very personal way on a weekly basis. They get involved. But the general success of the show, that sort of loyalty and rage over why did you let Meredith and George sleep together, it's fantastic but it's not something I necessarily expected."
Averaging 20 million viewers, "Grey's" is the fifth-ranked show in all of prime-time television and the fourth most upscale program (with viewers who earn $100,000 or more), according to Nielsen Median Research. Its audience is 67% female, 11% African American and 6% Latino. (Nielsen does not provide other ethnic breakdowns). Even more precious to advertisers is that 11 million of those viewers -- 58% of the audience -- is in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic, the group they like to sell to the most.
"I like the emotional draw of it," said Andy Yardley, 31, who works for a biotech firm in San Francisco and, in a major break from the typical fan mold, says she is drawn to the female characters more than to Dempsey's. "I cry almost every episode and I laugh almost every episode. So it feels very cathartic. Every Sunday, to be getting ready for the rest of the week, to have this last big moment, it's great."
In need of a checkup
Even when ABC preempts the show for other programming, such as the Academy Awards last Sunday, the fans know where to go for their fix. Nicole Scheff, 30, of Baltimore says she spends her entire workday on the message boards.
Moore, who re-watches episodes on her TiVo late into the night, says her husband thinks she's crazy. "But he's fine with it because I told him, 'Honey, you're starting to look like Dr. McDreamy.' "
But neither the blogs nor her daily morning fill of "Grey's" podcasts are enough for McQueen and her sister. So how'd they get by without learning for one more week whether George will forgive Meredith for having impulsive sex with him and then weeping over her mistake? They watched that episode again.
"I was just so grossed out. George and Meredith have a brother-sister relationship," McQueen said. "He knows how she feels about Derek and he shouldn't be upset about it."