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Is she ABC's dream prognosis?

Kate Walsh hopes for a career breakout in a `Grey's Anatomy' spinoff.

April 29, 2007|Kate Aurthur | Times Staff Writer

TELEVISION spinoffs are a tricky business. For every success like "Frasier," which was birthed by "Cheers," there's a "Tortellis" flop of the same lineage. The "All in the Family" DNA gave us the "Jeffersons" hit -- and the "Gloria" disaster.

In recent years, spinning off has been largely replaced by cloning -- as with the three "CSI" shows, which replicate the same format but with different casts in other cities. But Thursday, "Grey's Anatomy," ABC's celebrated and culturally resonant medical soap opera, is going old school: The pilot of its presumptive spinoff, starring Kate Walsh as the popular character Addison Montgomery, is embedded within a two-hour episode of the show. The opportunity represents a big leap forward for Walsh, 39, who, pre-Addison, fell into the I-must-look-that-person-up-on-IMDB category. "I've been very fortunate to be a working actress who hovered along," she said. "And then it was like, boom, 'Grey's.' "

Half of Thursday's show will be a regular episode filled with love triangles, wedding dilemmas and medical crises; the other half will establish Addison's new world by jettisoning her from the show's Seattle hospital backdrop into a Los Angeles full of old friends and fraught relationships. Shonda Rhimes, the obsessively secretive creator of "Grey's," has let few plot details leak, but the new show's cast members -- Taye Diggs, Amy Brenneman, Merrin Dungey and Tim Daly -- will make their first appearance Thursday.

Rumored to be titled "Private Practice," the show still must vie for a place on ABC's fall schedule, which the network will announce to advertisers and the press in mid-May. But considering that "Grey's" is ABC's top-rated scripted show, and more than that, has helped define its upscale, girl-power brand, it stands a good chance of becoming a series. Stephen McPherson, ABC's entertainment president, said that when Rhimes and fellow executive producer Betsy Beers approached him with the spinoff idea in the fall, "I immediately kissed them," he remembered with a laugh. "I flipped for it."

Stoking a lexicon legacy

IN three seasons, "Grey's" has already caused Americans to become addicted to the "Mc" prefix, a la Derek "McDreamy" Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey); it has imbued the word "seriously" with such meaning that it has ceased to be a mere adverb and is now more likely to be an entire sentence; and, in one memorable birth scene, it catapulted the euphemism "va-jay-jay" out of the world of fetish porn and into the mainstream (as in, "O'Malley, stop looking at my va-jay-jay!"). And so, in a year in which the show won a Golden Globe for best drama but also fueled the gossip mill with stories of on-set fights and off-set acrimony, the "Grey's" universe looks to expand.

Earlier this season, before Walsh knew a plot was brewing to create a show with Addison at the center of it, she sometimes wondered why her character was still on "Grey's" at all. Addison had been introduced to the show's heroine, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), and its audience in the last moments of the first season's finale. Addison, a neonatal surgeon sophisticate and a snoot, was the estranged wife of Meredith's boyfriend, Derek, a.k.a. McDreamy, and she was there to get him back. Throughout Season 2, the romantic triangle became a quadrangle and later a pentagon, with the introduction of Mark, a.k.a. McSteamy (Eric Dane), and McVet (Chris O'Donnell), and then -- forget it. Suffice it to say, Meredith and Derek got back together and Addison -- who, by last year at this time, had charmed fans with her vulnerability and sense of humor -- was left by herself.

During a recent interview over breakfast in Los Feliz, near Walsh's house and the "Grey's" studio, she remembered wondering: "She's done with Derek, she's done with Mark -- why is she still in Seattle? Wouldn't she go back to New York?" She laughed and continued: "I never asked too much, because I really love workin'. So I don't care if she's there to paint the OB/GYN ward eight times a year."

Rather than feeling there was a dearth of material to occupy Addison, Rhimes and Beers thought the opposite -- they wanted her to have a show of her own. "We weren't running around saying we wanted to do a random spinoff," Rhimes said by telephone recently. "It was about me getting excited about the possibilities for a character. There was a lot of really rich areas to explore with a woman who, especially in terms of 'Grey's Anatomy,' had quote-unquote 'everything.' Post-McDreamy, post-McSteamy."

From her first appearance on the show, Addison had evolved in unexpected ways, particularly since, as McPherson put it, "When she came in, she was a bitch on wheels."

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