Grey’s Anatomy: the TV show that has always been there for me
Shonda Rhimes’s long-running medical drama is not exactly uplifting. But through grief, upheaval and despair, it has been the one thing I can always count on
There’s a song that I listen to every time I begin to feel the tendrils of sadness take a grip. For nearly 15 years, this song – Grace, by the Norwegian singer Kate Havnevik – has soundtracked every desperate and devastating moment in my life. It’s a little self-indulgent gift I give myself when I need to be enveloped by despair.
However, if I’m honest, I don’t listen to this song because of its lyrics, although they are melancholic, nor because it’s particularly emotional, although it is. I listen to it because of how it made me feel the first time I heard it, which was during the season-two finale of Grey’s Anatomy. After nearly 27 episodes of will-they-won’t-they, the show’s two romantic leads, Dr Meredith Grey and Dr Derek Shepherd, slope off together for an illicit sexual tryst in an exam room. It’s a moment of reckoning for both characters, imbued with lust and sorrow, and I must have seen it more than 10 times.
My emotional reliance on that song reminds me just how inextricably linked my life has become to Grey’s Anatomy. First airing in 2005, the show is now the longest-running medical drama in US television history. Now on its 17th season, it follows the lives of the surgical staff at a fictional Seattle hospital. The first hit series for the inimitable television mogul Shonda Rhimes, the show is renowned for subjecting its characters to catastrophic events, untenable amounts of trauma, horrifying deaths and accidents – and unbearable torrents of heartbreak. Such antics have helped turn it into a multibillion-dollar franchise and, 16 years since it began, it’s still the highest-rated drama for its home network, the Disney-owned ABC.
It’s also one of the most important things in my life. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that I begin a re-watch of Grey’s Anatomy every year, either consuming the show from the beginning or working through my favourite episodes as if I’m choosing from a pick ’n’ mix of pain and suffering. No other TV show leaves me as distraught; watching Grey’s Anatomy is often so painful for me that it verges on unpleasant. Yet, time and time again, I keep going back. Why? Because, despite all the suffering and the subsequent excitation-transfer I experience as a result, Grey’s Anatomy has also provided me with comfort and space for self-exploration at the times when I’ve needed it most.
I watched my first episode of Grey’s Anatomy when I was 16. It was autumn, two years after my dad moved out and a year after my best friend died of cancer at 15 after a cruel and intense illness. Grief wasn’t so much a feeling as the backbone of my existence; an ache that sat within my chest constantly threatening to crack me in two. When I was hungover on the weekends after Friday and Saturday nights spent in various parks necking bottles of cider, I would watch the show on an old desktop monitor, sitting in an office chair in my pyjamas.
The world of Seattle Grace hospital, the complex lives of the surgical interns and their often-unusual life-or-death medical cases drew me in, but it was the character of Meredith Grey, played by Ellen Pompeo, whom I latched on to. Meredith was complicated, her love life a disaster and her family life even more so. Having been abandoned by her father when she was young, she was dealing with her cold and ambitious mother, who had early-onset Alzheimer’s. The man she was in love with, Dr Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd, played by Patrick Dempsey, had revealed that he was married and that, after his ex-wife’s sudden appearance in Seattle, he would be trying to give his marriage another shot. The only good thing in her life was her friendship with her fellow surgical intern, the competitive, difficult and driven Cristina Yang, played by Sandra Oh.