I always thought of Grey’s Anatomy (Sky Witness) as an easy option, a sprawling soap built for a casual viewing relationship. It was convenient – you could get what you needed from it, but you didn’t have to love it. It begins its 17th season with a double bill, and so much happens that I am starting to think I was wrong to neglect it. Not only is its labyrinth of storylines and characters tricky to keep up with if you haven’t done your homework, but it has started to feel as if it rewards commitment. By the end of the second episode, I was reconsidering my in-out approach.
It is April 2020, and the staff at Grey Sloan Memorial hospital are in the stormy early stages of the pandemic. They are taking Covid cases only, with the rarest of exceptions, and the days have turned into one long hunt for PPE, and one enormous nightmare of new, stringent regulations. It would have been strange, and not very Grey’s-like, to avoid depicting the current crisis completely, but it certainly jumps right into the thick of it. “Madhouse. On fire,” is Bailey’s succinct assessment. Even Richard Webber is back at work after his cobalt-poisoning saga.
This is not a show that often celebrates the subtleties of acting but, even so, it was fair to wonder just how much of an impact masks or full PPE might have on actors’ performances. It doesn’t seem to have stymied much, although it has amplified the more physical representations of drama. There are two separate scenes in which characters trash their surroundings in frustrated rage, and another where a character hammers on a door before sliding down it, in big, sobbing tears. Still, the masks quickly start to feel tragically ordinary, much as they did in the real world.
Meredith is in charge of the Covid patients, and is devastated to be losing so many, and that they are dying alone. “Who died?” asks DeLuca. “Everyone,” Meredith snaps back. On the non-Covid front, although it is related, a teenager is brought in covered in severe burns after a clandestine party led to a wildfire. This is a gruesome case of “full thickness burns”, which look as grim as they sound. Another young man, who received a fresh lease of life after a kidney transplant, ends up skewering his new kidney on a tree branch. And there is closure, in flashback, for the young woman who DeLuca suspected was a victim of trafficking. He was right, of course, despite his own mental health problems, and he returns to the frontline in better shape following an intervention from loved ones.
This is a tonal smörgåsbord, and for all of the serious medical cases and global pandemic traumas and bureaucratic nightmares, plenty of personal problems are given equal weight. Much like the masks, this jars briefly, until it doesn’t, and once you accept that a recently divorced woman asking her colleague for no-strings sex gets roughly the same billing as an inability to source enough protective equipment, then it is relatively plain sailing.
Jo is mortified that she has put Jackson in a potentially embarrassing position by asking him to be a sex bridge – it’s a thing – and they bicker about it over the peeling, burned skin of an unconscious teenager. Schmitt pours his heart out to his ex, Nico, about the stress of repeatedly informing families of the death of their loved ones. Nico doesn’t want to know, until he switches tack and decides to offer no-strings “stress relief” in a cupboard.
There is new love, a new baby, and the splintering of Owen and Teddy’s engagement after that betrayal, as it finally, inevitably, falls apart in a horrible, painful way. And then there is a humdinger of an ending, that, if it has not already been spoiled by the fact that this aired in the US last November, is a genuine if bittersweet surprise for fans.
Whether some of the show’s more tasteless instincts will seem at odds with the presence of the continuing, very real Covid crisis will be a personal opinion, but I felt that it slotted in just fine. There is a solid, thought-provoking thread that runs through most of the storylines, about the compromises that we make with ourselves. Grey’s Anatomy is melodramatic, but it always has been, and I have been drawn right back into the madhouse on fire.