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Why We're Thankful for Grey's Anatomy's COVID Pivot

After a year of doom and gloom, Season 18 has injected some much-needed light back into the Grey's universe.
  • Breakroom sno-cones brought big smiles in an October episode of Grey's Anatomy. (Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC)
    Breakroom sno-cones brought big smiles in an October episode of Grey's Anatomy. (Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC)

    The 17th season of Grey's Anatomy, which aired 17 episodes in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, was a season that was easy to admire but difficult to enjoy. As television's most prominent medical drama, the show's producers, writers, and showrunner Krista Vernoff made the decision to take the pandemic head-on, depicting as realistic a view of the horror that had descended upon the medical establishment as they could. This meant characters dealing with loved ones dying, as Bailey (Chandra Wilson) did with her parents. It meant characters breaking down amid the stress of the pandemic. It meant everybody at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital working in masks and face shields for the entire season. And in an effort to hammer home that this pandemic could touch anyone, it meant that Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) spent the better part of the season on death's door, spending whole episodes on a beachside interregnum between life and death.

    It was, to put it mildly, not a fun season. Even copious amounts of fan service — in the form of cameos by long-departed Grey's cast members like Patrick Dempsey, TR Knight, Eric Dane, and Chyler Leigh — couldn't brighten the mood of the show, mostly because a) they were tethered to the "Meredith might die" storyline, and b) they got everybody thinking that the show was ending and taking a farewell tour down memory lane. But Grey's Anatomy didn't end; Meredith survived her COVID nightmare, and the season ended on a note of guarded hope. And a few weeks ago, the show returned for its 18th season with as clear a mission statement as they could deliver. Before the episode began, a title card appeared which read: "This season, Grey's Anatomy portrays a fictional, post-pandemic world which represents our hopes for the future. In real life, the pandemic is still ravaging the medical community." This was followed by a link to get more information on COVID-19. As responsibly and apologetically as they could manage, the Grey's producers surrendered their noble but ultimately too-devastating commitment to pandemic verité.

    It's tough to blame them. While it's heartening to know that so many years into its run near the top of the broadcast TV rankings, the show has enough of a social conscience to try to depict COVID truthfully and responsibly. It's that social conscience that's kept the show near the front of the pack when it comes to diversity in casting and characters. But there's also the fact that the Grey's Anatomy audience was going through it last year just like everybody was, and Season 17 ultimately felt more like punishment than it did public service. So we're wiping the slate relatively clean for Season 18. No Dallas-esque retcons, of course. Everything that happened happened, it's just past tense now. The new season sees Grey Sloan Memorial emerging from the pandemic and trying to put itself back together amid a wave ofstaffing shortages and crises of purpose in this brave new world.

    In many ways, Grey's Anatomy is behaving like a divorced parent trying to be extra accommodating and fun for the kids. This subtext became text in the second episode of the season. "Whether it's burnout or exhaustion or just needing a change, these residents aren't the only ones that need to reset," Bailey tells Dr. Webber (James Pickens Jr.). "This whole hospital needs to remember why we're here. COVID took that from us." Bailey recalls when the staff would do pizza nights and pranks, and while even the most dedicated fans don't exactly remember that level of whimsey at Grey Sloan (or Seattle Grace before it), the message couldn't be clearer: remember when this show used to be fun? "There was joy and a feeling that we were all in this together," Bailey says, as much of a promise to the audience as it is to Webber that she's going to bring that feeling back.

    Of course, this is Grey's Anatomy, a show whose approach to fun has always hedged toward the fraught and frantic rather than the warm and cuddly. Indeed, when Bailey tasks Teddy (Kim Raver) with being the designated fun deputy, the cardiothoracic surgeon awkwardly fumbles around with ideas like Silly Hat Day before chilling out (literally) and just bringing a sno-cone machine into the break room. The show, however, does seem dedicated to making it up to the fans. In addition to finding new professional purpose working on a cure for Parkinson's with special guest star Peter Gallagher, Meredith has also cooked up a maybe-romance with a character played by Scott Speedman, last seen in a one-episode guest stint in 2018. He and Meredith had sparked some promising chemistry back then, and so the "remember when this was a fun, sexy show?" edict demands they get another shot.

    But the season's biggest and best news so far has been the return of former cast member Kate Walsh as Dr. Addison Montgomery, who departed Seattle way back in 2007 for her own spinoff series, Private Practice, and while she made a handful of guest appearances and kept in touch with the major players — Meredith is her ex-husband's widow, Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) is her former sister-in-law and Private Practice cohort, and Richard Webber is her trusted mentor — Walsh hadn't appeared on Grey's Anatomy since 2012. Addison's return, for as long as it ends up lasting, feels like a warm embrace from a show that knows its audience needs some comfort viewing, and she's delivered that so far, including a fantastic scene where Addison and Meredith have a requiem for Derek in that most Grey's of locations: an elevator.

    Not everything about this season has been perfect. The mandated crossovers with Station 19 are still irksome to anyone who hasn't succumbed to ABC's insidious attempts to create its own franchise night. And while the show has actually done a decent job of writing good stories about the Grey's characters as parents, there are so many moppets peppering the cast that it's genuinely difficult to keep track of which doctor is responsible for which child at the incredibly busy Grey Sloan daycare.

    Still, things are definitely improving. The show has explicitly confessed that its class of residents has been stagnating for years, so there's been some forward motion on that front. The show's commitment to diversity and progressive storytelling remains sharp; Dr. Kai Bartley (E.R. Fightmaster) has joined the fray as the show's first non-binary cast member, and they seem to be headed towards a storyline with Amelia; Teddy and Owen (Kevin McKidd) are raising a child whose gender expression is fluid; Levi (Jake Borelli) and Nico (Alex Landi) are keeping alive the tradition of fooling around in the on-call room. This is the Grey's Anatomy we've missed.

    The pandemic has certainly not ended, but the Grey's Anatomy COVID era largely has. In one way, the current, fictionalized world that Grey's inhabits is a frustrated population's vision of where this country could be if we had (or continue to) handle the pandemic better. "This could be us but you wouldn't mask or get vaccinated." But even that seems more high minded than the likely reality that Grey's Anatomy wasn't the show we wanted when it reflected the grimmest version of reality back at us. We need responsible reality when it comes to our public officials. From our TV faves, however, sometimes a reprieve is blessing enough.

    Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9:00 PM ET on ABC.

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    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, Caterina Scorsone, Chandra Wilson, Ellen Pompeo, E.R. Fightmaster, Jake Borelli, James Pickens Jr., Kate Walsh, Kim Raver, Krista Vernoff, Scott Speedman