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'Grey's Anatomy,' 'Private Practice' prepare for a joint operation

February 08, 2009|Shawna Malcom

There's nothing like a nasty case of worms in the brain to bring a gang back together.

On the set of "Grey's Anatomy," a gaggle of doctors have congregated around the hospital bed of one of their own, a neurologist who's suffering from the life-threatening illness. Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) wants to perform risky surgery on the patient (Grant Show), who just happens to be the brother of his ex-wife, Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh), who exited "Grey's" in 2007 for a fresh start on its spinoff, "Private Practice."

Now, just in time for sweeps, Addison is back at Seattle Grace for the first crossover between the ABC series.

"This is like our 'Big Chill,' " said Shonda Rhimes, who created both soapy medical dramas. "It's that idea of who you used to be and who you are now."

The timing of the on-screen mashup, which airs Thursday, is notable as well: "Grey's" is in the midst of a rocky fifth season, while "Private" is still regarded as its less popular kid sibling. The idea for a crossover was first floated by the network last season but, with "Private" still in its infancy, Rhimes was resistant. "I wanted to solidify the identity of what 'Private Practice' is," Rhimes explained, "both for audiences and in our minds."

Because of the writers strike, "Private" had precious little time in its first season -- nine episodes, to be exact -- to try to carve out that identity. Echoing some fans' criticism of those early installments, Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs, executive vice president of drama development, ABC Entertainment, said she thought "we sort of lost sight of Addison as the kick-ass surgeon." In her place was an Addison who danced around her beachfront home in a towel and flirted with the giddiness of an insecure teen. "We all sort of longed to see some of the swagger return," Patmore-Gibbs said.

In "Private's" more grounded second season, a stronger Addison -- and the rest of the docs in the Santa Monica-set practice, including Taye Diggs as Sam and Audra McDonald as Naomi -- have been given meatier medical cases. "I think Shonda has figured out a way to make the medical stories feel like great ethical dilemmas with [high] stakes," said Patmore-Gibbs, even without the inherent drama of "surgery every three minutes" like on "Grey's."

Still, that hasn't been "Private's" biggest challenge. Spinoffs often have difficulty establishing themselves as entities separate from the shows that launched them, particularly when that show is as hugely successful and has permeated the pop-culture consciousness as pervasively as "Grey's."

Perhaps recognizing this, Rhimes no longer seems as concerned with putting distance between her dramas. In December, ABC moved "Private" from Wednesdays to the post-"Grey's" slot on Thursdays, something the show runner balked at when the spinoff began but now said she embraced. "There's something lovely about having that much real estate on Thursday night," Rhimes said. "I feel like 'Private's' getting a real chance to have a strong show lead into it."

So far, it seems like a smart move. "Private" now averages 9.4 million viewers, up from the 8.7 million who regularly tuned in on Wednesdays. ("Grey's" has brought in an average of 15.3 million viewers this season.) Clearly, everyone involved is hoping the crossover will encourage even more of the "Grey's" audience to stick around. The likelihood is greater, Walsh believes, because the storyline is "more organic than just having everybody from L.A. attend a medical conference in Seattle."

And boy, how things have changed since Addision worked at Seattle Grace: Her ex-husband is planning to propose to girlfriend Meredith (Ellen Pompeo). Her ex-lover Sloan (Eric Dane) is dating Meredith's sister, Lexie (Chyler Leigh). And former BFF Callie (Sara Ramirez) is maybe, possibly gay. Said Walsh, who sticks around through the Feb. 19 "Grey's," "It's like going home for the holidays to your crazy family and finding out, 'Oh, my gosh, that happened? Wait, what?' "

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A haunted story line

Many "Grey's" fans have been similarly incredulous about the drama's current season. Rhimes began the year by giving viewers exactly what they had long clamored for: The reunion -- this time permanent, she promised -- of notoriously on-and-off couple Meredith and Derek. But in more recent months, another, more controversial coupling -- Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) and her dead former fiance Denny (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) -- has emerged front and center.

To say that the unconventional romance is unpopular would be an understatement. "Enough with the dead Denny/Izzie thing! Ugh!" wrote one poster at The Times' "Grey's" Show Tracker blog. Pleaded another, "Can we stick to the somewhat realistic dramas of the characters and the struggles of this profession versus daytime soap crazy stuff like the dead coming back to life and having sex?"

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