Grey’s Anatomy: Soapy Science

I just finished the last episode of Grey’s Anatomy available on Netflix, an accomplishment that feels more or less on par with turning in my Master’s thesis. I mean, look at the time I invested in this show. According to a quick scroll through IMDB, seasons one through twelve were comprised of 268 episodes. At 43 Netflix minutes apiece, that means I spent 11,524 minutes, or 192 hours, watching this show. (I once calculated that I spent 800 hours behind the microscope for my grad school project, so the thesis comparison is not totally out of line.)

Let me first get this out of the way: I know that Grey’s Anatomy is kind of dumb. I could probably have spent those 192 hours on much better things. Yoga teacher training, perhaps, or filibustering. But I also think that Grey’s (as fans call it) isn’t a total waste of time. In fact, I think it gets a lot less credit than it deserves.

Yes, it’s a silly soap; yes, it’s hard to keep a straight face when you try to explain the plot to a friend who hasn’t kept up (“oh, no, that was AFTER the mass shooting but BEFORE the plane crash”); and yes, it’s hard to forgive the sloppy and unkind ways the show has dispatched some of its most beloved characters.

But for a silly soap, it does a few things exceptionally well.

  1. It Remembers

Grey’s has what I like to call Institutional Memory.

Shonda Rhimes is reportedly good at retaining writers, and I think this helps reinforce the show’s backstory. Because the people pulling the strings are the same ones who have always been pulling the strings, the characters’ histories are remembered beyond simply who they’ve dated and what traumas they’ve endured. They get to have inside jokes (like Izzie Stevens, and then Christina Yang, calling Alex Karev “evil spawn, ” a joke that lasts from the fourth episode through Yang’s exit in Season 10) and weird little references (like the whole post-it note thing) and even mundane callbacks that are neither here nor there (like Pierce casually mentioning the fact that she didn’t like sharing her bed with her fiancée, a number of episodes after she first told that story—a throwaway comment of no real consequence. Like real people do in real life!)

Some characters are definitely more fleshed out than others (like what is the deal with Jo Wilson? She has no identity outside of her relationship with Karev. Weird for an otherwise kind of feminist show.) But the meat-and-potatoes characters are a lot more nuanced than they would have been in a lesser soap.

  1. It tries to be relevant

Last season, Meredith Grey had to face her most difficult demon yet: asking for a pay raise. That storyline plus Miranda Bailey’s (awkward) line towards the end, “This is what a feminist looks like!” shows that the writers are paying attention to the cultural climate and including it when they don’t really have to. The show also found a way to deal with some of the most boring aspects of the business of healthcare, like hospital buyouts and mergers, and make them suspenseful. And Meredith’s violation of Derek’s double-blind Alzheimer’s study found a way to bring clinical trials into prime time. (By the way, if you want to play the part of Richard Weber in Season 7, there’s a game for you.)

  1. It has cool science stuff

I’m not a doctor, but I do write about science and medicine for a living and Grey’s does a surprisingly good job of bringing up current topics. Remember when Bailey used a deactivated HIV virus to cure that kid in the bubble? That’s a really interesting flight of fancy about gene therapy, and it’s not entirely fictional. A version of the HIV virus has in fact been used in some experimental trials to deliver genes into cells taken from the blood of sick patients. No, it doesn’t involve injecting anybody with HIV, and no, it’s not the brainchild of a single person on a single day, and it’s certainly not deployed without animal testing, clinical trials, FDA approval, or even (for God’s sakes) parental approval—but it’s a real, fascinating, and cutting edge idea.

And I think it’s ok that it’s not really accurate. If you want people to be interested in science, you have to present them with good stories. That’s what Grey’s does, week after week: good stories with a sprinkling of science.

Although I’ve already mined the Netflix motherlode, Grey’s is still chugging along on network TV. I, of course, will be watching. And I’ll be writing, too. The editors at Tea & Fiction have kindly allowed me to infiltrate their blog for weekly episode recaps, reviews, and a place for me to post the results of my googling when something comes up that makes me think “wait, is that real?” Please join me in appreciating, and forgiving, this show week by week—beginning with the Season 13 (!) premiere on Thursday, September 22nd.

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