Grey’s Anatomy: Anatomy of TV Romance

Grey’s Anatomy can best be described as a medical soap opera. The setting is the fictional Seattle Grace Hospital. All the main cast are doctors or interns. But, in reality, the main focus of the show is the social interactions, particularly the romantic ones among the characters. And, the show does both a good job and a bad job with these interactions.

The main couple is intern Meredith Grey (yes, she’s the main character) and Dr. Derek Shephard. The relationship started as a one night stand. To subvert stereotypes, Meredith was the one to give Derek the speech that there was no need to exchange names or pretend that it was going to lead to some great romance or friendship. It was sex, nothing more. That is, until Meredith discovered that Derek was an attending at the hospital she would be interning at. Add to that, Derek’s refusal to keep things as a one time only thing, and Meredith’s growing feelings for him.

They began a relationship despite it being against the rules. This is one example of how I feel Grey’s Anatomy gets it right. They didn’t shy away from the problems that happen in a relationship. After their relationship was discovered, people began to imply that Derek was giving her special favors because he was sleeping with her. She lost some of the respect that she had among some of the staff.

Typically, but not unrealistically, Meredith bears the brunt of the criticism at the hospital. Still, Derek isn’t immune, as the blunt and fearless Dr. Miranda “The Nazi” Bailey lets him know how she feels about his actions. Allowing the characters to be flawed and showing how a relationship like this would be perceived makes it much more interesting than pretending that there can be no criticism of them because of some romantic fairy tale idea that these two are “meant to be.”

Another way the show does a good job with the couple was when they introduced the other woman. So to speak. The other woman was Dr. Addison Montgomery Shepard, Derek’s wife. Derek left her when he found her in bed with his best friend. The show could have written Addison as a one dimensional villian, in order to force the coupling of Meredith and Derek. They escaped this pitfall by making Addison a woman who made a grave error in her marriage, but who also is trying to atone for it, and is an interesting character beyond her status as an adulterer. It also didn’t write the two females as having cat fights. Meredith asked Derek to pick her (in a speech derided by some on the internet, but one that I felt showed courage) but she didn’t attack Addison as a person.

Derek also was written, at least early on, as a guy who was trying to be a good person and trying to honor his marriage vows and forgive Addison. They showed the struggle he had. Sometimes he wasn’t nice, but that made him human. One of the most compelling scenes was the Christmas episode where he told Addison that his depression during the holiday season was because he missed Meredith. He was honest, saying that Meredith wasn’t revenge, and he wasn’t leaving Addison, but he couldn’t just get over Meredith because he fell in love with her. It was painful, but real.

Another example of an attending/intern relationship is between Dr. Preston Burke and Christina Yang. Unlike the relationship between Meredith and Derek, Burke decides to come clean about his relationship with Christina before they’re discovered. Instead of dealing with rumors and respect, the show deals with other pitfalls that a coupling like this can have. Like not being able to separate the identity of boyfriend/girlfriend from teacher/student. These two also deal with personal issues. Christina is slow to open up to people and cares mostly about being a surgeon. Burke gets frustrated by what he sees as her inability to let him love her. Once again, the show doesn’t ignore the problems that would be a part of a pairing like this.

One of the best things about the show is, as important to the story as the romances are (and there are more romances in various stages from just starting to already failed amongst the rest of the cast) they aren’t the be all and end all. One big problem with an ensemble cast is when romances destroy the other interactions. On Grey’s Anatomy, friendships are just as important as romances. Meredith and Christina; George, Meredith, and Izzy; Meredith and Alex. They’re all important and are all given time on screen.

But, for all the good the show does, it also makes some significant mistakes. One mistake is the mistake most shows make with their main couple of Meredith and Derek. There is an idea that the audience must be made to wait for the pay off. So, they keep the characters apart, while at the same time teasing the audience for what they should hope for. On Grey’s Anatomy, this results in the characters behaving in unsympathetic ways.

It’s wrong when Derek, known as McDreamy, has people online thinking he’s a jerk and not worth either Meredith or Addison. It’s one thing to see a man struggling between his sense of duty and his feelings. It’s another thing when he just seems to want the image of being a good guy without doing any of the work to be one. After constantly flirting with Meredith, despite his vow to try and make things work with Addison, he just seems hypocritical. It would be more honest to have him admit things aren’t working, divorce Addison, and try a real relationship with Meredith.

The biggest problem was in the season finale. This was meant to be seen as a romantic moment, the moment that all the fans were waiting for. To me, it came off sleazy. Meredith and Derek had sex after trying to deny their feelings for each other. What made it bad was, Derek wasn’t coming off a broken heart, and this time Meredith was fully aware that he was married. Another problem are the episodes leading up to this moment. First, it’s hard to rejoice when only a few episodes earlier, Derek acted like a jealous jerk, accusing Meredith of sleeping around, simply because she tried to move on with a nice veterinarian instead of pining away for him. Meredith’s speech to him in that episode was a rousing one, where she asserted her independence and said that she wasn’t going to apologize for how she handled her heartbreak.

While Derek’s declaration that the dance between them was over sprang from jealousy and an attempt to hurt her, Meredith’s declaration was of a woman who was ready to stop pretending and to stop living half a life waiting for a man who rejected her. It was a shame to see her go back in what was written as something that couldn’t be helped because of some overwhelming passion. Perhaps if Derek had done the honorable thing and left Addison instead of stringing her along, it would have seemed more romantic to me. Also, there was the image of Addison clinging to a hopeless fantasy, when just the episode before, she was honest with herself that their marriage was a sham. It was a shame to see two women who had made strides slide back in service of romance and the need to keep a triangle going.

However, the season finale wasn’t a complete travesty. First, it showed Christina becoming more human and how difficult it was for her to realize her tough shell was being broken, and that she could be hurt. And, the ‘bad boy’ intern Alex, who had been jealous of fellow intern Izzie’s inapropriate feelings for a heart patient, showed maturity and caring when the patient died. Although the whole plot of Izzie trying to cheat another patient out of a heart was extreme and ludicrous, the image of Alex saying just the right words to her to break her from her stupor and holding her as she cried is one of my favorites.

Because he was written as someone who let go of his anger and jealousy, and who was able to acknowledge that she was dealing with a real loss. In the end, the imporant thing isn’t whether they will get together, it’s that he was shown to care about her, even without anything in return. These two storylines were much more satisfying than the main plot.

So, Grey’s Anatomy isn’t perfect in the way it portrays romance, but it has a lot going for it. Hopefully next season the show will continue to play up its strengths and fix its weaknesses. I’m eager to find out.

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