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Here's How Grey's Anatomy Is Tackling Its COVID-Era Return

ABC's workhorse medical drama is back. What we know ahead of tonight's Season 17 premiere.
  • Ellen Pompeo as Dr. Meredith Grey on Grey's Anatomy. (ABC)
    Ellen Pompeo as Dr. Meredith Grey on Grey's Anatomy. (ABC)

    It's been a minute since we last saw TV of the sort that returns tonight with the season premiere of Grey's Anatomy. While the streamers and some cable channels were able to steam through with the rosters of completed shows they'd banked before the pandemic, network TV muddled through with a mix of reruns and remote-shot programming until the late summer return of reality TV.

    Seven-plus months since the shutdown, it's only been over the last week or two that the traditional bread-and-butter scripted shows of network television have started to come back. Of course, they're not really "back." The pandemic rages on, and any new TV we're getting now has been produced under strict safety protocols, not to mention the emotional veil of everything that's happened (and continues to happen).

    The good news for fans of Grey's Anatomy is we're finally getting new episodes. After cutting Season 16 short in March when the shutdowns began, the show returns with quite a few lingering storylines, plus a big new one as it tackles the coronavirus pandemic head-on. After all, this is a medical drama set in Seattle, the first major U.S. city where COVID wreaked havoc.

    What can we expect as we dive back into a new, terrifyingly current Grey's Anatomy? Producers have been characteristically quiet on specific plotlines, but here's what we know:

    Where Did Season 16 Leave Off?

    Only 21 of the scheduled 25 episodes were produced last year, with the final four initially delayed and ultimately cancelled. Lucky for the show, the episode that turned out to be the season finale played very much like season finales do: There was a wedding that didn't happen, there was a baby born, there was a major medical breakthrough and life-saving surgery on one of the show's main characters, and several of the doctors at Grey Sloan Memorial found themselves at a crossroads.

    The biggest development was that what had appeared to be an Alzheimer's diagnosis for Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens, Jr.) turned out to be cobalt poisoning from an old hip replacement; this discovery was made by Dr. DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti), who at the moment is battling mental illness. Webber underwent successful surgery, but when he emerged, his old grudges with his estranged wife Catherine (Debbie Allen) were back and more fierce than ever.

    Amelia Shepherd (Caterina Scorsone) gave birth to her baby, with Bailey (Chandra Wilson) coaching her through it. Meanwhile, Owen (Kevin McKidd) was accidentally made aware that Teddy (Kim Raver) and Koracick (Greg Germann) are still having sex, and so he called off their wedding. The episode ended with Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) taking a broken-down DeLuca home, while her maybe-future-boyfriend Dr. Hayes (Richard Flood) looked on.

    Who's Back This Season?

    All of last year's main characters are back, with two new additions to the main cast: Flood has been bumped up from recurring to regular, a casting development that — along with this Instagram post from Pompeo showing Meredith and Hayes together — has many speculating that this will indeed be Meredith's next big romance (sorry, DeLuca).

    Also getting bumped up from guest star to regular is Anthony Hill, who showed up in one Season 16 episode as Dr. Winston Ndgu, an old colleague of Maggie's (Kelly McCreary) who met up her with at a medical conference in L.A., and they ended up sleeping together. So expect that to be a thing.

    One recurring cast member who may not be around as much is Stefania Spampinato, who played OBGYN Dr. Carina DeLuca. She's not leaving the show entirely, though, she's just moving over to sister series Station 19.

    When Did Production Resume?

    Production on Grey's Anatomy's seventeenth season began in early September. And while those four planned Season 16 episodes were left unmade, it seems that the new season is planning to incorporate some of those scripts while at the same time moving forward to cover more current-events-inspired storylines. The Season 17 premiere, which airs tonight as another crossover event with Station 19, will be set several weeks into the pandemic, before flashing back to pre-COVID times, using footage from the episode that was interrupted by the shutdown.

    How Did Production Resume?

    Showrunner Krista Vernoff recently detailed for Variety everything that the show is doing to make sure production is as safe as it can be under pandemic conditions. This includes everything from the actors wearing masks in between takes and standing farther apart while filming, to enforced silence in the hair and makeup trailer, to testing three times a week.

    How Will the Storylines Address COVID-19?

    Showrunner Vernoff has said she had to be convinced to have Grey's address the pandemic rather than opt for a rosier, pandemic-free version of the show's universe. Ultimately, she was swayed. "There's no way to be a long-running medical show and not do the medical story of our lifetimes," she told Variety.

    Vernoff also said that the show has been working in conjunction with front-line doctors to tap their expertise on what the pandemic has looked like up close. One character in particular that they're looking to put in the middle of these COVID-specific storylines is Owen Hunt, which makes sense given his background in trauma surgery and his tendency to be haunted by… well, everything.

    And just so viewers don't get worried that the new Grey's season will be an all-out assault on our fragile pandemic psyches, Vernoff has also said that the show's writers are looking for ways to "keep alive humor and romance while we tell these really painful stories."

    Grey's Anatomy returns to ABC tonight, November 12 at 9:00 PM ET.

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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, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Grey's Anatomy, ABC, Station 19, Anthony Hill, Caterina Scorsone, Chandra Wilson, Debbie Allen, Ellen Pompeo, Giacomo Gianniotti, Greg Germann, James Pickens Jr., Kelly McCreary, Kevin McKidd, Kim Raver, Krista Vernoff, Richard Flood