We are in the doldrums of summer, or, if television is any indication, the dulldrums of summer. The losers (and many of the winners) on America’s Got Talent aren’t any less embarrassing in reruns. And now that we know the end of Lost, even though we’re not entirely sure what happened, there’s no sense in tuning in a second time around. There is one show that I can watch any time and still get a laugh out of — Grey’s Anatomy.
As guilty pleasures go, Grey’s Anatomy has reached heights of hitherto unknown on the small screen. Certainly, Desperate Housewives had its moment. But, from the come-hither title to the line-up of middle-aged Charlie’s Angels in the leading roles, it was evident that no one, including the show’s producers, took Desperate Housewives seriously. Grey’s Anatomy, despite the over-the-top melodrama that marks each episode, somehow retains a venire of seriousness, somehow contains just the right mix of surgery-room melodrama and Letters-to-Penthouse broom-closet encounters to allow us to fool ourselves into thinking we’re watching something of import packaged in a palatable form.
The show is something like those healthy looking salads prominently displayed next to the French-fries on the fast food drive-up sign. If we looked closely at the nutritional information, we would notice that those salads often have more calories and fat (usually the bad fat, not the good stuff we tell ourselves is better for us because some villagers living in the Italian Alps consume a gallon a day and live to be a hundred and twenty) than the double bacon double cheese burger. That’s Grey’s Anatomy, the empty calories of a comedy pretending to be the vitamins, roughage, and protein of serious drama.
Apparently, in the un-logic that governs TV programming, because it’s an hour long rather than thirty minutes, Grey’s Anatomy is classified as a drama. If that’s the case, why do I find myself laughing so hard every week?
The Greeks had a simple enough formula: if the actors on stage are smarter or braver or better dressed than you are, it’s a drama; if the actors on stage are dumber, cowardly, or ugly, then it’s a comedy. Of course there were rules that came along with this formula: if it’s a drama, then everyone dies at the end, a convention from which we get the term tragedy; if it’s a comedy, everyone gets married at the end. This was the formula followed for the most part by Shakespeare, though he shook things up by having everyone get married and die at the end in Romeo and Juliet.
Those rules may not be any help here. It’s difficult for a TV series to kill everyone off at the end of an episode and then follow up with, “Next week on . . .” Though Survivor and its clones do the next best thing, and manage to string us along for a season.
The dumber/smarter distinction might not help either. The doctors in Grey’s Anatomy are super smart, super talented, super dedicated, (really and truly) super surgeons—at least that’s what Meredith’s voice-over insists every week. In their personal lives, these are the most dysfunctional, passive aggressive, borderline schizoids one would never want to have over for Thanksgiving dinner.
What about the Greek penchant for courage? These people are certainly willing to take wild chances in surgery with other people’s lives, or with unprotected sex. (Do you really think any of them carry a spare condom in their scrubs just in case someone pushes them into a broom closet between surgeries?) And one of the reasons their personal lives are in such shambles is their willingness to rashly enter into intimate relationships with other borderline schizoids.
Now we come to better looking cum better dressed, and this may be the place where Grey’s Anatomy is most clever, where Hollywood style trumps substance. Unlike the current run of cop shows that assume that every detective or CSI in LA, New York, Chicago, and Miami is beautiful/handsome enough to get a full spread in Cosmo or GQ, Grey’s Anatomy has its share of the runway-challenged in major roles. The producers have cleverly given the show the appearance of cutting edge drama, while making that drama as safe from any real issues as possible.
Ah, but here’s where Grey’s Anatomy may rise above itself. While the Greeks and Romans may have revered drama, they used comedy to examine the pressing issues of the day, to ask the hard questions, and challenge the self-satisfied norms of society. Reference Lysistrata, a comedy that challenged the Peloponnesian war, gender roles, and even democracy itself. If, even though I may be the only one who thinks so, Grey’s Anatomy is a comedy, then it examines, not the foibles of a group of nerds who have grown old enough that people who should know better are willing to trust them with sharp objects, but a mirror on us, on society, on our own inability to play well with others. If it is a comedy, if it is showing us ourselves, then, between tears of laughter, I may have to shed a few real tears for what I see of myself reflected on the small screen.