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April 12, 2005

Grey's Anatomy refuses to see the world in simple black and white

So who's been watching Grey's Anatomy? Probably a lot of people, because it comes on right after Desperate Housewives, and most of us are too lazy to get up and change the channel. But Grey's Anatomy is a good little show in its own right—smart, funny, and touching without being too ambitious. It's like ER, if ER had decided it wasn't cut out for med school and starting selling medical supplies instead.

Ellen Pompeo leads the cast as Dr. Meredith Grey, a first-year intern who has to endure insensitive comments about her famous surgeon mother. The one and only Patrick Dempsey ('80s heartthrob from Can't Buy Me Love) plays her superior, Dr. Derek Shepherd, who knows Meredith biblically before he meets her professionally. Completing their love triangle is my favorite character, George (T.R. Knight), whose mother still irons his scrubs—at least until he moves in with his crush, Meredith, whose institutionalized mother has left a vacancy in their huge house.

Dr. Isobel "Izzy" Stevens (Roswell's Katherine Heigl) also lives with Meredith and George, and while Heigl is so far the weak link among the cast—a scene in which she pleaded for a dying man's rights came perilously close to sap—Izzy is a delightful character. A future episode in which it's revealed that Izzy posed for Victoria's Secret to pay her way through med school promises to be a hoot.

Besides, Heigl's relative inexperience (aw, her biggest credit so far is for Bride of Chucky—give her some time to prove herself) is tempered by the masterful Sandra Oh, who portrays Dr. Cristina Yang with just the right mix of dedication and vulnerability. "I'm not a ‘people person,'" Cristina declares in episode three, and boy, is she right. Yet this character is not a brainy Asian stereotype. Keep in mind that Oh was originally offered the more one-dimensional part of Dr. Miranda Bailey, but handed that part to Chandra Wilson because she wanted a meatier role. This was a wise move on Oh's part. The pilot didn't earn any points with me by having the interns refer to Wilson's Dr. Bailey as "the Nazi." This dubious nickname is offensive because it trivializes the Holocaust and because, well, it just isn't very clever.

Grey's Anatomy's weakest episode by far has been its second. This is the episode in which a rape victim bites off her attacker's penis and, unbelievably, the entire sordid situation is played for laughs. Much of the plot revolves around Meredith toting the penis around in a cooler and making everyone feel uncomfortable. (It would have been impossible for the doctors to reattach the member, you see, due to the nature of the wound.)

I think this episode is supposed to be funny—and if you giggle every time someone says the word "penis," well, then, it probably is. Following a relatively understated premiere episode, however, this storyline is particularly disappointing. It didn't help that Grey's Anatomy introduced its bland opening credits with the second episode. They're nothing but a time-waster, during which people can head for the fridge and forget they were going to watch anything after Desperate Housewives. Lose the credits, please, or—I fear—Grey's Anatomy could lose a good portion of its audience.

The pilot episode was entertaining, though, if a little overstuffed (by the time Meredith went to visit her sick mother in the hospital, I was emotionally spent), and the third episode gets even better, as the plotlines thicken and the characters deepen. We learn of George's love for Meredith; icy Cristina thaws a little to do something kind for Izzy; and even the loathsome, cocky Dr. Alex Karev (Justin Chambers)—hated by fellow characters and audience alike—begins to appear like he could be redeemable. Sure, Derek's non-stop romantic pursuit of Meredith is beginning to feel a little creepy by this point, but hey, you can't have everything. Besides, maybe George will finally sprout some balls and ask her out!

This dilemma gets to the heart of the series's promise, because the most interesting scenes take place not during surgery but while the interns are just hanging out, being ordinary kids—albeit kids of above-average aptitude in math and science. (As long as no one's carrying a penis in a cooler.) The scenes in the ER feel like lazy retreads of the countless doctor shows that have come before this one. The soap opera elements, on the other hand, are surprisingly fresh. The two best scenes: an awkward apology from Cristina to Meredith in the pilot episode, and a tirade directed toward Alex in the third episode, in which Meredith refers to him as a "frat-boy bitch." The former made me want to take notes so I could write an equally subtle scene between two characters in one of my screenplays. The latter made me want to stand up and cheer.

If Grey's Anatomy has any claim to hipness, it lies in the soundtrack, which contains well-placed cuts from indie favorites like the Postal Service. I know these bands should probably have their own penises bitten off for so blatantly selling out, but that's the musicians' problem, right? It's not like we can fault Grey's Anatomy for wanting to buy its way to coolness, especially after—hello?—Beck premiered five new songs on the March 10 episode of The O.C.

At its core, though, I suppose Grey's Anatomy is kind of dopey. I mean, technically, it's supposed to be Gray (G-R-A-Y)'s Anatomy, right? I think they had to change the title for licensing reasons, and giving the main character the last name of Grey is too cutesy. But these are minor quibbles.

In the latest issue of People magazine, Patrick Dempsey plays a game of word association (well, phrase association) with one of People's writers. He completes the sentence "This year I hope to…" with the words, "be picked up for another 22 episodes [of Grey's Anatomy]." You know what? I hope he gets his wish.