Grey's Anatomy premiered its 16th season last week in familiar fashion, picking up all the plot threads left dangling from last May's season finale. Maggie (Kelly McCreary) and Jackson (Jesse Williams) returned from their foggy camping trip with their relationship on very bad terms. Teddy (Kim Raver) went into labor at home, with only romantic rival Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) to drive her to the hospital. And in the biggest cliffhanger of all, Meredith (Ellen Pompeo), Webber (James Pickens Jr.), and Karev (Justin Chambers) were all fired by Bailey (Chandra Wilson) for falsifying an insurance form to give treatment to an undocumented child.
The circumstances surrounding each of these developments were sufficiently soapy to satisfy the show's loyal (and still quite large, by 2019 network TV standards) audience, but it's telling that the top-shelf storyline wasn't the breakup or the pregnancy, but rather the ethical quandary wrestled over by longstanding colleagues and close friends. At one point, as Meredith, Webber, and Karev tried to "I am Spartacus" their way to each taking the blame upon themselves, Bailey referenced one of the show's most memorable moments, when Izzie (Katherine Heigl) cut Denny's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) LVAD wire so that he'd get to the top of the transplant list, a reckless maneuver that her friends (among them Meredith, Sandra Oh's Cristina, and T.R. Knight's George) tried to cover for. That moment was a classic case of Grey's Anatomy mad-love run amok, where Izzie's already frowned-upon love affair with Denny led her to make the most rash decision possible, nearly costing her her career. This was the essential push/pull of Grey's Anatomy that made it so irresistible in its original incarnation: the ambitions of these young surgeons were only matched by their willingness to dive headlong into deeply problematic romances that almost always ended in heartbreak, disaster, and in some cases death (R.I.P. Denny, for real).
That was all well and good for a show in its second, third, and fourth seasons. Meredith could passionately beg McDreamy (Patrick Dempey) to choose her over his estranged wife. Cristina could end up engaged to her heart-surgeon mentor. George could cheat on his orthopedic surgeon wife Callie (Sara Ramirez) with erstwhile BFF Izzie, who would then walk down the aisle with Karev, but only when she was on her death bed with a brain tumor. That was classic Grey's Anatomy, and without those heady days, it's unlikely we'd be seeing the show in its 16th season today.
But for those who have stuck around, it's striking to take a step back and appreciate a series that has matured as it has aged. Yes, the cast has turned over and over again, incorporating younger interns and new hotshot surgeons to replenish departing regulars, but it doesn't feel like an accident that this mass-firing storyline is happening almost exclusively among the show's quartet of original cast members Pompeo, Pickins, Chambers, and Wilson. That's because in place of a series about heedless young surgeons with only their boundless young talents at stake, Grey's Anatomy has evolved into a show about experienced colleagues and trusted friends making difficult decisions, despite having much more to lose at this stage in their careers. Meredith is a single mother of three, whose decision to do the right thing by admitting her guilt in the insurance fraud and keep her young and very hot boyfriend DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti) out of jail wasn't the foolish act of a girl in love, but rather a considered moment of moral backbone by a woman with a lot at stake. Same goes for Alex, whose personal life was already pretty hectic, with his wife about to go into treatment for her clinical depression. Former chief of surgery Webber's complicity in the scam might end up costing him his marriage to the great Catherine Fox (Debbie Allen) at a time when she's going through her own cancer diagnosis.
Allowing its longstanding characters to grow and mature hasn't cost Grey's Anatomy its delicious taste for drama. But it's also moved the show away from an old stance that said that the crazier, more destructive, and more all-consuming love was, the better. And it's not just the original characters experiencing this growth. During their slapsticky ride to the hospital, Amelia and Teddy began to come to terms with their romantic rivalry over Owen, reflecting the kind of prioritization of female friendship over mere romantic relationships that characterized the Meredith/Cristina friendship. Ultimately, that was the point where Grey's Anatomy made its decision to become the show it is today: when the Meredith/McDreamy romance was laid to rest and the show finally acknowledged that the great interpersonal bond at the heart of the show wasn't their relationship but the "I'm your person" bond shared by Meredith and Cristina.
Love and romance are far from dead at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, of course. But at a time and in a culture where aging feels like anathema to relevance, not only are the characters growing older with grace and a refreshing shift in priorities, but the show enters its 16th year not with the jangly energy of an all-consuming mad love, but with the purposeful stride of a show that has seen enough of that kind of love to now set it to the side.
People are talking about Grey's Anatomy in our forums. Join the conversation.
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, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.