America’s longest-running primetime medical drama, “Grey’s Anatomy” was, like everything else in Hollywood, shut down due to the pandemic this spring before completing Season 16. With America’s real-life medical emergency eclipsing ABC’s fictionalized ones, a planned 24-episode season was abruptly cut off at 21 episodes. But given the show’s tendency to dramatize “ripped from the headlines” medical plots, Covid-19 was always going to factor into the show’s return. And “Grey’s Anatomy” has never been known to do things halfway.
So true to form, Season 17, which premiered on Thursday night, features one of the most coronavirus-centric TV plots we’ve seen since studios started filming again. The result is one of the most moving season premieres in the show’s history, which after nearly two decades is saying a lot.
Though such a choice might feel like a no-brainer for a medical show, other series appear to be struggling with how to address the current state of the world. Though the “socially distanced, Zoom based” pandemic shows get headlines — like “Coastal Elites” and “Love In The Time Of Corona” — most have decided that escapism is preferable to realism. “The Masked Singer,” for example, went so far as to edit in footage of audiences watching performances unmasked to give the impression of normalcy. Others, like the just returned “This Is Us,” take a more pragmatic approach, adding details from “the new normal” (masks, social distancing, grocery deliveries) but otherwise sticking to the original storyline.
“Grey's” could have followed suit, building a world that was semi-separate and hopefully less bleak than ours. Star Ellen Pompeo, who plays the titular Meredith Grey, has broadly hinted Season 17 will be the show’s last, as her contract (and the series with it) is expiring. So far, ABC has not announced an extension. It would have likely been easier to spend this potential final season tying up loose ends, not least of which include the kinds of romantic entanglements that are made far more complicated by pandemic protocols. Though it is a medical drama, “Grey’s Anatomy” has leaned heavy on romance since its inception. The loves and lives of these characters have always balanced out the increasingly heavy hospital scenarios.
But as showrunner Krista Vernoff, who took over the series in Season 14, put it, the production felt it had a duty to dramatize the reality many Americans aren’t witnessing in their daily lives. “We have an opportunity to help drive home the costs to the medical community,” Vernoff said recently. And if anything, “Grey’s” is becoming more of an activist in its advanced age, which in this case means proving a counterbalance to the false messaging that this virus is somehow fading away.
To that end, the series jumps forward in time from where it left off last season, right into the heart of Seattle’s first wave. As a story choice, this is more effective than you might think. Seattle, where the show is set, was hit before most other cities — including New York — went into crisis mode. This was a city where the lockdowns were real, and really terrifying, dating back to Feb. 29 when King’s County confirmed its first death.
The premiere starts with a tour of the world as it is, explaining in detail exactly what the hospital staff is going through. And though it punctuates this reality with cheerful and even funny sequences, the audience is never allowed to forget how many people are dying and how helpless these doctors feel. In another show, scenes of the mass thanking essential workers might feel cheesy, or worse, overly sentimental. But given “Grey’s” nearly two decades of dramatic cred — not to mention the horrors and frustrations that befall its characters — the applause feels earned.
The show's decision to go all in on Covid-19 also affects its sister show, “Station 19.” The firefighter drama is set just a few blocks down the street from Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital. This allows for all sorts of crossovers, and in this case, a combined three-hour premiere — one hour of “Station 19,” followed by two hours of “Grey’s.” ABC switched the shows’ positions on the calendar for the premiere, with “Station 19” functioning as a lead-in at 8 p.m., “Grey’s” long-held Thursday slot, before the flagship show came on at 9 p.m. (The move felt designed to help prop up the younger, and frankly weaker, show by tapping into “Grey’s” fans' longstanding habit of turning on the TV at eight.)
These two series are all that’s left of ABC’s once mighty Shondaland Thursdays, which in the past two years has seen the end of “Scandal” and “How To Get Away With Murder.” With Shonda Rhimes herself now decamped for Netflix (her first series “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker,” premieres later this month), there’s little chance more will be forthcoming.
And so, if this is indeed “Grey’s Anatomy's” final season, at least it seems willing to go out standing up for the medical community which it successfully mined for decades of extraordinary plotlines. Considering how much these stories need to be told right now — the number of people unconcerned by the virus is truly frightening — Pompeo and company will be able to walk away with their heads held high.