Grey's Anatomy is back for its 19th season, and while this TV war horse has lasted so long in part because of its ability to weather cast turnovers, it now faces its most formidable challenge yet. Ellen Pompeo, who's played the show's namesake character Dr. Meredith Grey since day one, will only be appearing in eight episodes this season. She's not leaving the show mid-season, but rather taking on a lighter workload as she films her as-yet-untitled "Orphan" project at Hulu.
This means that for the first time in 19 seasons, Meredith won't be the central character of Grey's Anatomy. And while this has always been an ensemble show, Meredith has been the anchor, holding the show's center in place. The question that naturally arises is who is going to fill that void in her absence?
There are the two other remaining original cast members: Chandra Wilson and James Pickens Jr. But with Miranda Bailey (Wilson) starting the season having quit the hospital and Richard Webber (Pickens Jr.) having long since acclimated himself to a supportive teacher role, neither seems likely to take the reins. After two episodes, it doesn't seem like the show is significantly elevating the likes of Amelia Shepherd (Caterina Scorsone), Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington), or Levi Schmitt (Jake Borelli) any higher than their current spots as featured ensemble players. Any one of them can carry a storyline, but they're not carrying a whole show.
Meredith's sister Maggie (Kelly McCreary) is mired in an increasingly dull marriage storyline, so don't expect her to fill Meredith's shoes. Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd) and Teddy Altman (Kim Raver) are a full mess as a couple right now, but not in a particularly compelling way. Scott Speedman is new enough to the cast that he might be able to move up to leading man status, but his character, Dr. Nick Marsh, seems entirely tied to his romantic storyline with Meredith. If the show can capitalize on his new position as head of the residency program, they might have something, but as of now, he's a supporting character.
But Grey's Anatomy is always up to something, and showrunner Krista Vernoff had the sense to know it was time to replenish the ranks at Grey Sloan. And so, as has happened a handful of times over the show's 19 seasons, we're getting a new class of residents. Obviously, this group of five fresh faces is being introduced with a ton of visual and narrative references to the show's original quintet: Meredith, Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl), Alex Karev (Justin Chambers), and George O'Malley (T.R. Knight). But how well equipped are any of these characters to step into the storyline void that Meredith will leave for all but six of the season's remaining episodes?
Here's a quick rundown of the new residents through first two episodes of Season 19, and where they seem to fit in the Grey's Anatomy young-resident template:
Dr. Simone Griffith (Alexis Floyd) seems to have the inside track on being "the Meredith" of this new group. She was introduced in the season premiere running late to her first day on the job, which is an easy way to spotlight a character (make 'em wait for you!). And that was before she confessed to Dr. Webber at the end of the episode that her lateness was due to a freakout because she was actually born at Grey Sloan (then Seattle Grace), and her mother died in childbirth. And then in episode two, we see she lives with her grandmother (Marla Gibbs), who is experiencing what seems to be serious dementia. Secret personal history with the hospital? A close maternal family member with dementia? Trying to stay strong and fight back the tears? These are all serious nu-Mere indicators.
Not content to simply cede the nu-Mere crown to Griffith is Dr. Jules Millin (Adelaide Kane), who showed up on the first day having already slept with an attending, Dr. Lincoln (Chris Carmack). Obviously, sleeping with an attending on the eve of beginning your residency is an obvious callback to the Grey's Anatomy pilot, but nobody has any illusions that this is going to be another Meredith/McDreamy situation. Neither Link nor Jules seem all that interested in a romance, and this entire plot is treated mostly like a joke — though it's nice to see that, in the intervening 19 years since the original Meredith/McDreamy drama, the attending in this situation now does the responsible thing and goes to HR to keep everything above board.
Dr. Mika Yasuda (Midori Francis) got reprimanded on her first day for cracking a joke about the organ bonanza that was incoming from a fatal bus crash. Later on, we found out that she secretly has a heart of gold. Those two things seem to point more towards a Cristina Yang archetype, or even an Alex Karev. In the season's second episode, we found out that Yasuda is living out of her van (though a decently well-appointed van — she's set up for WiFi!), which feels like more of an Izzie Stevens or even Jo Wilson vibe. Yasuda's probably not our Meredith, but she could be the star pupil of this class.
Dr. Benson "Blue" Kwan gets the benefit of being played by beloved Glee dancer/actor Harry Shum, Jr., but he's the least well-developed of the five new residents by a good margin . He seemingly being positioned as the Arrogant One, but in this show about hotshot surgeons, arrogance has always been a moving target. If we had to make a comparison among the original five Grey's residents, he's a bit like Alex Karev with the cruelty dialed way down. We're putting a pin in Blue until we see more.
And then there's Dr. Lucas Adams (Niko Terho), who earned the nickname "Skywalker" on his first day, despite (or actually because of) his protests against it. Adams was the big screw-up of the Season 19 premiere, including mistakenly declaring a patient dead to their loved one and potentially screwing up a massive double-organ transplant in the process. (This particular viewer muttered the phrase "this fucking guy" no fewer than three times during Adams' first 10 minutes of screen time.) This placed him squarely in George O'Malley territory, though there was a twist: It turns out Adams was the favored nephew of the late Dr. Derek Shepherd, meaning he has family connections with Meredith and Amelia, though that's currently being kept under wraps to avoid any appearance of favoritism. Not that Mere nor Amelia seem all that interested in giving their nephew special treatment. Adams was so determined not to reveal his family status that he even let the other residents assume he's sleeping with Amelia in the on-call room rather than admit that they were having a secret family chat. That's dedication… or foolishness. O'Malley again! Meredith did say he reminds her of Amelia herself, which kind of disqualifies him immediately from nu-Mere consideration. But he's going to be a major focus of the new class, even if he's not the superstar of this group.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Grey's Anatomy, ABC, Adelaide Kane, Alexis Floyd, Camilla Luddington, Caterina Scorsone, Chandra Wilson, Chris Carmack, Ellen Pompeo, Harry Shum Jr., Jake Borelli, James Pickens Jr., Kevin McKidd, Kim Raver, Midori Francis, Niko Terho, Scott Speedman