Pull the Plug on ‘Grey’s’

The McColumn

In the season premiere of the hit TV surgery/sex drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) delivers an unusual rumination on the sexual mores of surgical interns: “We’re all 17 years old. This is high school with scalpels.”

In this confession, Shonda Rhimes—who wrote the episode and created the series—echoes a similar statement from the mouth of Jerry Seinfeld from his self-titled show: “Our lives. What kind of lives are these? We’re like children, we’re not men!”

At the highlight of 90s television. Larry David—the episode’s writer and the show’s creator—masterfully captures the self-conscious relationship anxiety that made “Seinfeld” so fun to watch. Rhimes, too, understands her show’s basic appeal.

She knows that it’s great fun to watch men and women with advanced degrees behave like horny teenagers, but such a premise can only take Rhimes’ show so far.

Yet the problem with “Grey’s Anatomy” isn’t that the show’s clumsy writers consistently back their characters into one implausible romantic situation after another—it’s that their characters have lost any sense of basic dramatic motivation. The show, nominally about the deepest recesses of humanity, has turned into a superficial study of sex and surgery.

As someone who has watched “Grey’s Anatomy” from its first episode, I know that it’s capable of so much more. Just like “Seinfeld,” Rhimes’ show used to break down relationships into their constituent parts and hold them up for analysis, often mirroring the plights of various patients with the troubles of the doctors.

But now that sex-crazed scalpel fiends have replaced the real humans that abounded in the first season, “Grey’s Anatomy” squirms under the weight of its own emptiness—there is no tension or catharsis, only an incestuous roulette game of who’s zoomin’ who.

Relationships in Seattle Grace Hospital are made and broken with nothing more than a glance, a whisper, or a touch (making out in the stairwell and spontaneous infidelity are very popular). Even the show’s one steady relationship—between a careerist intern and a famous cardiothoracic surgeon—has been reduced to a striptease here and a few lies there.

Such a television show is no longer a legitimate drama; it’s coy pornography. The show’s affliction runs deep in its third season, in which its characters’ relationships are bought with sexual currency.

Such sexual leverage facilitates relationships in “Seinfeld” as well—when Jerry presses George to explain why he stopped seeing a woman just because she beat him at chess, he says, “I don’t see how I could perform sexually in a situation after something like that.” But Larry David’s characters are so well-defined—by their self-centeredness and neuroses—that such behavior never undermines the verisimilitude of the drama.

Part of Rhimes’ trouble is that she has given her writers an unnecessarily difficult task by bringing in too many peripheral figures into the center of the sexual stew. The myriad relationships dilutes their individual significance and pushes her characters farther from reality into stereotype.

When Callie seeks revenge on the romantically aloof George in Mark’s bed, their spontaneous coupling seems completely out of character because from their late entrances into the show, Rhimes hasn’t explained what makes either Callie or Mark tick. I don’t know if David would say that “Seinfeld” had a social conscience, but I do know—thanks to their unintentionally ironic blog, Grey Matter—that the writers of “Grey’s Anatomy” intend to affect broader commentary.

Zoanne Clack, the only writer on the show who holds an M.D., lists five reasons why watching “Grey’s Anatomy” isn’t a waste of time. She explains herself with platitudes like, “I’m not talking medical things, I’m talking life lessons,” and “Did I mention guilt is a crazy strong emotion?” Hidden is this kernel of wisdom: “Our show pretty much lets you know: there is no perfection, just levels of flawed humanity.”

Those are big words that the show’s writers back forcefully by imbuing each episode with a healthy dose of human folly. Unfortunately, the mere mortals in the show don’t come off as people so much as representations of varying types of lust.

This lust-driven view of human relationships stands in stark contrast to that of “Seinfeld,” where all the fun was watching the emotional tug of war outside the bedroom. Rhimes, Clack, and company could have their sex and use it, too, if they only allowed their characters to say something meaningful pre- and post-intercourse.

—Staff writer Kyle L. K. McAuley can be reached at kmcauley@fas.harvard.edu