It appears that COVID-19 has done what the ever-changing landscape of TV has been unable to do over the last ten years: turn Grey's Anatomy into must-see TV again. As the long-running series airs its winter finale tonight, it's by far the highest-profile network show to have addressed the coronavirus pandemic head-on, managing to do it responsibly at its highest levels, all the while handing out the kind of fan candy that one usually reserves for a series finale.
When the series returned for Season 17 in November — after shutting down production before its 16th season was properly finished — it did so into a much changed world. Grey's showrunner Krista Vernoff and her staff made a conscious decision to lean directly into the pandemic, with the doctors of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital plunged into the darkest days of COVID. And to its credit, the show has taken this all incredibly seriously, both in front of and, seemingly, behind the camera.
The doctors at Grey Sloan hop from patient to patient in full PPE gear: wearing helmets and air pumps and covered from head to toe. Patients are kept isolated, the doctors can only gather with limitations and at a distance, and everybody pretty much looks like… well, characters in a virus-outbreak movie. Meanwhile, the hospital is dealing with low PPE supply reserves, limited tests, and panic-inducing uncertainty as it tries to combat the disease.
This hasn't meant that the rest of the interpersonal business of a thriving primetime medical soap isn't also going on. Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) and Link (Chris Carmack) just had their baby and are trying to handle at-home isolation. Jo (Camilla Luddington) and Jackson (Jesse Williams) have tumbled into a rebound-sex situation. Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd) is still reeling from learning that Atlman (Kim Raver) and Koracick (Greg Germann) were sleeping together behind his back. It's just that this is all happening against the backdrop of a global crisis that has changed the face of what a medical drama should look like in 2020.
By far the show's most daring stroke in the new season was to have series star Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) get stricken with COVID at the end of the two-part season premiere. This isn't the first time that Grey's Anatomy has placed its title character in life-or-death peril, but to the show's credit, they've made it count each and every time. The time she nearly drowned in the harbor was not only an episode-long tension bonanza, it was also an emotional turning point for the character. A Season 12 episode where Meredith was attacked by a seizure patient — an episode directed by no less a talent than Denzel Washington — led to a lengthy and traumatic recovery process that felt very hard-won. Now, rather than just put Meredith through the paces of COVID in a single Very Special Episode, we've seen her laid up for episodes on end, lingering on the border of life and death, and visited by ghostly departed Grey's characters like Derek (Patrick Dempsey) and George (T.R. Knight).
These unannounced cast returns have had the rumormill on overdrive as fans speculate about other possible returning cast members — everyone from Sandra Oh, to Kate Walsh, to Katherine Heigl — and have givin this season the air of a swan song (whether that's intentional or not). Earlier this year, Ellen Pompeo hinted that this could be the final season for her and/or the show as a whole. For many people, the two are inextricable. Shonda Rhimes herself has said that the show would end when Meredith leaves. And while it would be truly shocking if the series ended with Meredith dying of COVID, the parade of returning original cast members does have the feeling of an Irish wake.
Whatever is in store for the second half of the season — the show is expected to air ten more episodes in the new year — it's clear that Grey's Anatomy has suddenly become a vital series again. Which isn't to downplay the show's success in recent years; that it has remained compelling and high-rated for nearly two decades is an often unheralded fact. But with Grey's Anatomy now on the front lines of the biggest story on the planet, it's as must-watch as it's ever been, whether its title character's life hangs in the balance or not.
Grey's Anatomy airs its winter finale tonight December 17th at 9:00 PM ET on ABC
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor 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.