T.R. Knight, beware. Semi-public rumblings about one's desire to be freed from under the firm press of "Grey's Anatomy" creator Shonda Rhimes' thumb have a way of not ending so well. Witness the case of Katherine Heigl, who moped about the lack of quality material the show was providing her and was subsequently punished with scenes requiring her character, Izzie Stevens, to have loud orgasms while copulating with the oddly manipulative ghost of her late love, Denny Duquette (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
"You want an Emmy-worthy arc?" Rhimes seems to be saying. "Act this!"
In the case of Knight's George O'Malley, who has been debased in countless ways since the beginning of the series in 2005 -- a fitful, badly ending sexual encounter with Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo); having to repeat his intern year -- the options for continued embarrassment are multiple. (That is, if he even gets a chance: Last month, US Weekly noted that George had appeared on screen for only 38 minutes during the first 10 episodes this season.) He's already missed out on his shot with Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh). Perhaps he'll be forced to reunite with his ex-wife, Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez), herself fresh off an unresolved, and unexplained, lesbian relationship with Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith), a plot turn snipped short before it could generate heat.
Such are just a few of the problems bedeviling the onetime juggernaut "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC, 9 p.m. Thursdays), now floundering in its fifth season. In truth, the show lost its mooring two years ago, after Meredith's near-death by drowning, but this season has been dizzying, careening like a pinball from one unlikely plot turn to the next, and the continued degradation of characters who, for years, had been etched with careful precision.
Maybe Rhimes and her team are stretched too thin. This week, "Grey's" will be coupled with its spinoff, "Private Practice," and which in its second season still hasn't found its motivation, on Thursday nights. But two shows in free fall make for a difficult pairing and might only bring each other down.
Of the two, "Grey's" has the heavier burden and the most ground to regain. In addition to Heigl's and Knight's troubles, the show has let its best characters go to waste. Hospital chief Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) has been single-mindedly and unpleasantly focused on raising the hospital's ranking, to the detriment of the often tender story lines involving his strained relationship with his wife, Adele (Loretta Devine). And what about the secret surgery society spurred on by new intern Sadie Harris (a woefully misused Melissa George)? And Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) asking Mark Sloan (Eric Dane) to seduce Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) so she won't distract Meredith from their cohabiting bliss? Sloan failing? And then taking up with Lexie over Derek's protestations?
Combine these story line twists with the increasingly improbable surgical procedures the show highlights -- fecal transplant? -- and "Grey's Anatomy" is increasingly resembling science fiction.
"Private Practice," at least, appears to be nominally grounded in this mortal coil, if only that. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) was never fully nourished on "Grey's" and has therefore long had difficulty anchoring her own series. At least last season, when she was the center of romantic intrigue on this show, she exerted a primal pull. This year, though, she's had all the warmth of a schoolmarm, with a love life in neutral and an increasingly unsatisfying professional life.
Meanwhile, the characters Addison used to help ground are now adrift. Her likely love interest, Pete Wilder (Tim Daly), was momentarily derailed by an old flame, Meg Porter (Jayne Brook), leaving the formerly swaggering doc a virtual mute. As feuding couple Sam (Taye Diggs) and Naomi Bennett (Audra McDonald) fight to rescue their business from financial ruin, they discover that a rival practice is opening one floor upstairs, spearheaded by their sometime colleague Charlotte King (KaDee Strickland).
That Charlotte has become the axis around which most of this show's intrigue revolves only highlights how thin the central characters have become and how many of the show's initial charms have been neutered. The vivid sexual confusion between Violet Turner (Amy Brenneman) and Cooper Freedman (Paul Adelstein) has been completely sacrificed so that Cooper could play out his ridiculous affair with Charlotte, whose character has resisted all attempts at softening -- sea changes in hair, makeup and wardrobe be damned.
Some bright spots have emerged this season -- a brief guest run by Brian Benben as Sheldon, a smirking but awkward therapist from the rival practice; a couple of cases in which Cooper trumps his own lecherousness to be the great pediatrician he knows himself to be capable of being -- but the show's stasis has been best encapsulated by Addison's cop boyfriend, Kevin Nelson (David Sutcliffe). He's taken several hits this season -- shot in the line of duty, told by Addison's brother that she was slumming it with him -- and he spent a couple of episodes bedridden at Addison's house, recovering, as Addison let their relationship fester. But in the show's last episode before the holiday, even he threw on some clothes and walked out -- if he hadn't, he might have been stuck there forever, waiting for change that was never to come.