ShondaLand rife with pain this February

Warning: article contains spoilers

For those who have lasted the past seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and feel like they have the emotional endurance to undergo more of what seems like endless heartbreak, I salute you. I’m not sure if it is the looming midterms, or just the general life panic of a college junior that puts me in a vulnerable mental space, but last Thursday’s mid-season premiere of Grey’s Anatomy on ABC had me raising my eyebrows and saying, “of course,” with a sigh that was both weary and skeptical.

For the past 11 seasons, show producer and creator Shonda Rhimes has guided her beloved Grey’s Anatomy characters through personal tragedy after personal tragedy. These have included, but are not limited to: blossoming romances killed in infancy, multiple cases of Alzheimer’s, car crashes, plane crashes, shootings, near-drownings, serious cancer diagnoses, miscarriages, amputations, and runaway spouses. Even for other, less tragic reasons, beloved characters have walked off the series, much to the bereavement of some of the show’s most ardent fans.

This past Thursday’s mid-season premiere was no different in terms of emotional content; however, Grey’s Anatomy fans are speaking out against it. In this episode, titled “The Sound of Silence,” titular character Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) is viciously attacked and assaulted by a car crash victim she is attempting to treat.

In typical Grey’s Anatomy fashion, the other members of Rhimes’ diverse ensemble cast surround her bedside and rush to save her life, surrounded by the beeping noises and panic associated with only the most dire of Grey’s Anatomy emergencies.

This is repetitive not just for Grey’s Anatomy, but for Meredith Grey herself, who has suffered medical crises numerous times along with many other personal tragedies, the most recent of which was the death of her husband, Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey). Frantic fans feel that poor Meredith Grey has experienced enough.

Actress Ellen Pompeo, however, addressed these concerns on a “ShondaLand Revealed” podcast, saying “You don’t think you’re going to have to come up with 12 years of devastating things happening to one character. However, I look at the news every day and read newspapers online, and people have had some pretty unfortunate series of events happen to them in life. Things that you never think would happen. People being at two different mass shootings. Random, weird things do happen. Earth is quite an interesting place. So we can always suspend our disbelief enough to be able to tell some story and learn some lessons.”

Though it is nice to hear Ellen Pompeo recognize that her character has been dealt a bad hand, I can’t help but wonder what lessons viewers experience by watching her — and her castmates to an extent — get repeatedly battered week after week. Lessons can be learned from coping, that’s irrefutable, but most of this show becomes about coping with loss. Watching this show now involves holding your breath week to week, waiting for an inevitable crisis.

Part of me is seriously concerned that Rhimes has sacrificed conveying complex emotional lives for the more sure-fire and reliable emotional punch that these tragedies provide. As much as weeping during movies or television shows is therapeutic to me, I found myself questioning that on Thursday, thinking: does this alone make good television? How much more evidence of life’s impermanence do we need?

My impression, after having watched the episode, is that Grey’s Anatomy has perhaps reached the end of its tether as a show. Eleven seasons after its foundation, it seems that all the characters are working to move past a near continual set of tragedies. The show is still entertainment and, after all, that is its primary responsibility, but it’s hard to be willing to get very invested in a certain character only to have the rug pulled out from under them nearly constantly, and that ultimately diminishes the power of the stories these characters tell.

Rhimes shouldn’t be afraid to shake up the classic Grey’s Anatomy mold at this point. Change is difficult when there are such faithful fans, but it is worth a shot to save the show from floundering.

The mid-season premiere of Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder also aired Thursday night on ABC. These two shows, also run by Shonda Rhimes, both include a fantastic amount of tragedy. Though I’m not a Scandal fan, I am a huge HTGAWM fan, but unlike Grey’s Anatomy, the storyline only consists of characters avoiding conviction for crimes. Though in its infancy — this is HTGAWM’s second season — I worry that the show might eventually devolve into a caricature of itself, the way that the Rhimes-run medical drama has.

If Ellen Pompeo’s defense of Meredith Grey’s tragedy reminded me of anything, it’s that life includes great joys along with great horrors. And it seems that as Grey’s Anatomy progresses, the examination of these happinesses gets more and more cursory. But if life — and entertainment that seeks to explore, albeit in a fantastical way, the diversity of such a life — is an exercise in opposites, Grey’s Anatomy is very much weighted in the tragic direction, to the show’s detriment.