washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tom Shales

'Grey's Anatomy': No Heart, No Brain

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 26, 2005; Page C01

One of the abiding operative tenets of the TV business is that viewers don't want new shows, they want new shows that remind them of old shows. This doctrine is so old that it led comic Fred Allen to observe, 50 years ago, that "imitation is the sincerest form of television."

And so it is that "Grey's Anatomy," the new medical series premiering tomorrow night on ABC (at 10 on Channel 7), is only nominally new -- the vaguely familiar saga of ambitious young interns earning their stripes at a big fat Seattle hospital.


The cliche bone's connected to the trite bone: Ellen Pompeo, Sandra Oh and T.R. Knight in the retread medical drama "Grey's Anatomy." (Richard Cartwright -- ABC)

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The cute title refers not only to a classic medical text but also, tee-hee, to Meredith Grey, a first-year surgical intern whose struggles and strife are at the center of the ensemble drama. As played by Ellen Pompeo, she's tough, tenacious, sweet and sensitive, and she has one of the sunniest smiles ever seen in a TV medical show.

Obviously the series owes a lot to "ER," the hospital drama that revolutionized hospital dramas with new levels of candor and graphic gore. "ER" still does well, but obviously it's considered to be showing its age, and NBC's Thursday night lineup is hardly the impenetrable fortress it once was.

So it's only natural that a producer and a network would figure that the time is ripe for another medical drama. By concentrating on young interns, "Grey's Anatomy" hopes to attract young viewers. The show is much more a matter of commercial calculation than an honest attempt to try something fresh and different -- and so bears a greater resemblance to the lurid 1962 melodrama "The Interns" than it does to this season's truly offbeat medical show, "House" on Fox.

As the premiere begins, Ms. Grey, who is not quite Dr. Grey yet, wakes in her apartment to find a handsome stranger (Patrick Dempsey) sharing her bedroom. In a reversal on a time-honored process, it's the woman who picked up a one-night-stand in a bar and brought the man home -- and can't quite remember his name when she sees him by dawn's early light.

She has to get to the hospital for her first day of on-the-job training, so she sends her guest on his way. Now, here's a TV-teaser for you: Have we seen the last of Mr. One-Nighter -- or -- will he turn out to be one of the surgeons to whom Grey is assigned at the hospital?

Tick, tick, tick. Time's up! If you guessed that he'll be popping up at the hospital much to Grey's surprise and chagrin, then congratulations, you could probably be writing junk like this yourself. You win the TV viewers' equivalent of a black belt.

Now, use the belt as a handy blindfold to cover your eyes and give yourself a nice nap while "Grey's Anatomy" plods along.

Naturally the crop of young interns is a cross-section of humanity, united not by a love of medicine or a desire to serve the sick or stricken but by voracious ambition. They're as competitive as Olympic lugers, fretting about their careers and about what kind of impression they're making on their superiors. A narrating Wise Old Doc keeps referring to their jobs as "a game" and urges them to "look around at your competition" on the job.

"This is your starting line," the doctor says of the hospital. "This is your arena. How well you play, well, that's up to you."

How comforting it would be for the patients -- some of them linked to life by the beep-beep of a machine -- to learn that the interns not only think of all this as a mere game, but are encouraged to do so by the old pros. "Grey's Anatomy" is not a show to restore your faith, should it be shaky, in modern medical care.

In fact, the script by Shonda Rhimes, nimbly directed by Peter Horton (once an actor on "thirtysomething"), is nothing but a casserole made of equal parts ham and corn. Most of the venerable cliches are there, including the frenzied application of electrical paddles to revive a fading patient and, mere moments later, an angry papa, also frenzied, who reads the riot act when a doctor tells him he doesn't know why the man's teenage daughter is having seizures.

"That's my kid in there!'' screams Daddy to Seizure Girl's doctor. "My kid! And you have the audacity to stand there and tell me 'I don't know'?!'" Well yes, as a matter of fact, he does, and "Grey's Anatomy" has the audacity to stand there and restage this and many other such scenes from medical shows of the past already restaged ad infinitum and ad nauseam.

It's a "new" show only in the sense that Dr. Frankenstein's monster was a new man.

Grey's Anatomy (one hour) airs at 10 p.m. Sunday on Channel 7.


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