Change is hard, as Meredith Grey has observed more than once in the signature voice-over of "Grey's Anatomy." After the show's strange slide into bathos last season, everyone involved, including show runner Shonda Rhimes and pinup star Patrick Dempsey, acknowledged a certain creative downturn, a gloomy earnestness, that would, they swore, be rectified. "We're bringing the fun back," Rhimes said. Indeed, the first episode of Season 4 was entitled "A Change Is Gonna Come." And millions of fans breathlessly waited . . .
And waited. Eight episodes in, things have happened of course. George (T.R. Knight) told new wife Callie (Sara Ramirez) that he cheated on her, so that marriage is over and George is officially in love with former best friend Izzie (Katherine Heigl), though if the fans have anything to say about it, that won't last long either. The suddenly single Callie moved in with the suddenly jilted Cristina (Sandra Oh). Derek (Dempsey) and Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) continue their dance of longing and leaving.
But the only real change is that Isaiah Washington is still gone, and the fabulous Brooke Smith, playing Dr. Erica Hahn, has taken his place. Hahn is a terrific character, sassy and professional, with an appropriately acerbic view of the various romantic shenanigans. She also seems to be a carefully considered stand-in for viewers choking on the soapy silt of last season, a way for the writers to move forward without messing with the hugely successful brand. (Don't get too nervous, Brooke, but the future of TV's once highest-rated drama may be in your hands.)
Changing a big hit television show is a tricky business. It's easier to tinker, though often not as effective. And while "Grey's" remains a big hit, its ratings continue to slide; a few weeks ago, they hit an all-time low.
At Fox, on the other hand, the creators of "House" have gone with a bolder approach -- bringing in a whole new set of ancillary characters to cure the increasingly myopic focus on the lead (Hugh Laurie, looking increasingly haggard) -- with more satisfying results. Likewise "Nip/Tuck," on FX, decided to forego the Botox and give itself the big midlife lift. But the writers of all three shows have apparently remembered that the only thing people like to talk about more than their love lives is their ailments.
In other words, while viewers like the romance and character development, they need to have their medical shows rooted in, well, medicine.
Rich veins to mine
Doctors, cops and lawyers dominate network TV for a reason. Their jobs, by their very nature, provide the exact ingredients of a successful TV show: smart, professional main characters; a high turnover of interesting ancillary characters (patients, clients, criminals, etc.) and, of course, that life-or-death tension that eludes most of us keyboard-rattling, cellphone-wielding Normal Folk, and lifts the characters of "Grey's" or "Boston Legal" or "Women's Murder Club" out of neurotic schlepperhood and into dra-mah.
Watching lovely people tango with lust while they perform heart surgery or an odd couple find a friendship while they track down serial killers provides not only emotional frisson but audience connection to a rarefied world. We may not know how to surgically disconnect conjoined twins, but most of us have known the frustration of thwarted love and betrayal.
What made "Grey's Anatomy" so successful in the first place was its creation of prickly yet still sympathetic characters, people you might actually know, who were then put in an extraordinary circumstance -- the first year of residency at a high-pressure hospital. There was friendship, but there was competition; there were bad decisions and panic, but lives were saved and careers begun.
The problems of last season, which have unfortunately trickled into this season, were not about losing sight of the fun, but of the medicine -- the dramatic possibilities of medicine. These are doctors, with all manner of flaws and frailties, yes, but still doctors. Which is why they have their own TV series. (And writers strike notwithstanding, "Grey's," "House" and "Nip/Tuck" are good for at least another month of viewing.)