“Grey’s Anatomy” debuts its 19th season Thursday, officially cementing it in the top 10 longest-running prime-time shows in the history of American television. That’s an impressive stat. But what’s more impressive is the series is obviously gunning to run 19 more, with its newest season premiere playing as a soft reboot pilot introducing fans to a new generation.
What’s more impressive is the series is obviously gunning to run 19 more, with its newest season premiere playing as a soft reboot pilot introducing fans to a new generation.
The series initially revolved around a single character, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), a new surgical intern at Seattle Grace Hospital. Since then, Pompeo’s character has risen through the ranks to head of surgery, and, in the season 19 premiere, she oversees the arrival of a brand-new crop of recent graduates beginning their residency internships at the now-renamed Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital.
This full circle moment is not an accident. Despite “Grey’s Anatomy” having slowly morphed into an ensemble series over time, that ensemble ultimately still revolves around its titular doctor. This makes “Grey’s” unique, as nearly all other long-running shows named for titular characters are animated, existing in a state of suspended time where characters never age. (Of live-action shows named for their characters, only “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” technically beats “Grey’s” in episode count — for now — but on a far more compressed timeline.)
Show creator Shonda Rhimes revealed in 2017, ahead of the show’s 15th season, that she and Pompeo had an informal agreement. “The show will exist as long as both of us want to do it,” she told E! News. “If she wants to stop, we’re stopping.”
The series was only renewed for one season ahead of its 18th outing; the 19th season only became a done deal after a protracted negotiations process that played out in the media. Ahead of the new season, it was reported that Pompeo’s role would be greatly reduced; she will only appear in eight episodes this year.
But the pilot-like premiere, introducing a whole new crop of interns introduced as a central ensemble, suggests the show has found a way to have its cake and eat it too. Pompeo continues to agree to let the show proceed and graces it with her (well-compensated) presence occasionally. Meanwhile, a new generation takes over to actually star in it.
But can “Grey’s Anatomy” actually work without Meredith Grey?
To be sure, Pompeo is not the only actor powering a long-running series. “Law & Order: SVU,” now in its 24th season on NBC (NBC and NBC News are both owned by NBCUniversal), began with the arrival of Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson to the sex crimes squad. Initially conceived as an ensemble series, it wound up doing the reverse of “Grey’s Anatomy,” slowly morphing over time to a show where the ensemble ultimately revolves around its lead actor. Though the series is not named for Benson, Hargitay is as central to “SVU” as Pompeo is to “Grey’s,” and everyone knows it.
Audiences love the warm and fuzzy message that there are people out there saving lives and making the world a better place.
Technically, both “Grey’s” and “SVU” could run just fine without their leading ladies. Police procedurals and hospital dramas are two of the longest-running drama tropes in the TV industry. They both naturally provide an endlessly renewable source of tension coupled with the comfort of watching hardworking, good people bring order from chaos. Audiences love the warm and fuzzy message that there are people out there saving lives and making the world a better place. (That this black and white binary is fictional, both in terms of policing and the health care industry, does not matter. One could argue it actually serves to make these shows more attractive.)
But, as ABC’s brass noted at the time, the combination of the adrenaline-fueled stories and the female lead character created a show with a feminine edge. Like “SVU,” it stands out from the crowd while maintaining its broad appeal.
Since the confluence of high-end television shows coupled with well-heeled streaming services forged the current era of “prestige TV,” conventional wisdom insists viewers want extra-long episodes, single-narrative storytelling, short episode counts and even shorter series runs. Both “Grey’s” and “SVU” buck that trend, with two dozen episodes a year, each clocking in at 44 minutes a pop. They also both bring long-tail viewership: “SVU” marathons on cable predate the term “binge watch,” while “Grey’s” continues to be Netflix’s secret weapon in the streaming wars. (A weapon Disney will most likely eventually claw back for itself once it starts merging all its streaming offerings under a single banner in 2024.)
Pompeo is in an interesting position. “Grey’s Anatomy” would seem to be far too valuable a franchise to rest on the shoulders of one actor, even though it’s what makes the series tick.
And indeed, she has decided to do other projects. ABC will certainly be watching whether season 19’s soft reboot trick works, with the show finding a way to thrive with a new central cast (and perhaps a new central female star), occasionally overseen by a benevolent Dr. Meredith Grey. Other network executives will surely be watching as well.
The series has already renamed its hospital after Meredith's family, as a nod to their legacy. It’s a legacy Ellen Pompeo should feel very proud of, as well.