I don’t think I’d seen the Grey’s Anatomy pilot since it originally aired in March 2005. ABC’s rebroadcast was a good opportunity to revisit the beginnings of the hit drama.
The success of Grey’s Anatomy was a surprise at the time. The advance buzz wasn’t especially strong. Reviews were decent, but not raves. And in 2005, creator Shonda Rhimes was an under-the-radar screenwriter, not a powerful TV brand.
Arriving in a world where ER had redefined the medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy needed to be distinctive. House, M.D., which had premiered a few months earlier, stood out by focusing on a genius bastard with a disability, a Vicodin addiction and a misanthropic disdain for everyone. Grey’s Anatomy courted attention by contrasting a crew of day one interns against the veteran staff of a Seattle teaching hospital. It boasted an excellent cast and a first rate production. All its familiar stylistic approaches were there.
The cast and its chemistry was a big part of the initial success of Grey’s Anatomy. As has become a hallmark of Shonda Rhimes productions, it was effortlessly diverse, but never expected a pat on the back for reflecting the real world. It mixed a couple of prominent names with a lot of character actors and theater vets. And was blessed that the alchemy that producers hope for but can never guarantee occurred. Even from the outset, the cast just clicked.
Pompeo is a low key actress and often doesn’t get the credit she deserves for centering Grey’s Anatomy. Right from the start, though, she provided an intriguing focus that grounded the ensemble. Pompeo made Meredith someone the audience could latch onto as their guide through this world, while still offering some glimpses of the character’s dark corners that would emerge down the road. It was strong work, even if it wasn’t flashy.
The pilot ignited the three Meredith relationships that would drive the series. Most crucial was Meredith’s friendship with fellow intern Cristina Yang (the amazing Sandra Oh). Oh made Cristina a standout from her first scene, bristling with energy and confidence. She found intriguing ways to demonstrate Cristina’s intelligence, strength and ambition. She was an unapologetic go-getter who recognized the potential for greatness in her new colleague. The pair fell into an easy alliance rather naturally. It wasn’t without rocky moments, even in the pilot. But it provided a firm foundation for one of the most complex TV female friendships in recent memory. The pilot reminds you how much the show has missed Oh since her departure.
By comparison, Meredith’s romance with Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), one of her new bosses, was almost conventional. The pilot opened with the pair (unaware they were about to become teacher and student) waking up from what they thought would be a one-night stand. Looking back now, Meredith’s initial insistence that pursuing any kind of relationship was “inappropriate” is kind of amusing. Really, where would Grey’s Anatomy be without all the inappropriate workplace romances? Fortunately, Pompeo and Dempsey had a strong spark that translated onscreen really well. Before the duo became laden with years of drama, there was an appealing lightness to their developing romance. Dempsey was rather good at playing the romantic lead, long before Derek took a left turn into arrogance and pomposity, and his enthusiasm for both a new job and a new woman were believable.
The pilot also did a surprisingly subtle job of setting up Meredith’s complicated relationship with her mother, Ellis Grey (Kate Burton), a pioneering surgeon suffering from Alzheimer’s. The pilot only hinted at the complicated history between mother and daughter. And Burton appeared only in a single scene, Meredith’s episode-ending visit to Ellis in a nursing home. But even that was enough to provide an intriguing hook that would be crucial to the development of Meredith’s character.
A few other characters managed to make a strong impression in the pilot. Isaiah Washington was great as cardio surgeon Preston Burke. He embodied Burke’s intelligence, confidence and authority with an admirable economy. Chandra Wilson was spot-on as Miranda Bailey, the smart, tough resident overseeing several interns. She made Bailey formidable and memorable. Though it was regrettable that a smart, accomplished African-American woman would be saddled with a nickname like “The Nazi” (something it would take the writers years to realize). And, for better or worse, TR Knight’s bumbling, sadsack George O’Malley arrived on the show like that.
The remaining cast regulars didn’t make as much of an impression in the pilot, though they’d all get their chances in future episodes. Katherine Heigl got a couple scenes to embody the sweet side of model-turned-doctor Izzy Stevens, but was a long way from the material that would win her an Emmy the following year. Justin Chambers turned up in a few scenes as an almost overbearingly smarmy Alex Karev, getting only that one note to play. Karev wasn’t even part of Bailey’s intern group in the pilot. And while James Pickens, Jr. presented an appropriately Socratic bearing, surgical chief Richard Webber was a mostly background presence in the pilot.
But it’s not hard now to see why Grey’s Anatomy became a hit. It was the right blend of serious medical drama and addictive soap opera, with a generous sense of humor to provide counterpoint. It was sleek and light on its feet, zipping along propulsively, with brisk pacing, dynamic camera work, well-chosen and –integrated music and a sharp eye for details. It provided stories and characters you could see wanting to follow.
It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t revolutionary, but it was appealing. While no one expected Grey’s Anatomy to become a big hit, looking back at its pilot, it’s not a shock that it did.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on April 10, 2015.