Why ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Continues to Thrive

Grey's Anatomy

I was never going to be one of those people that flocks to the screen to watch a sprawling, sappy drama. I wouldn’t succumb to the fate of viewers that guffaw and tear up like the rest of the obsessed audience, following the roller coaster narratives of my favorite characters. Yet, on a whim a one day, I hit play on the pilot episode of Grey’s Anatomy, fully expecting to turn it off within minutes, and instead watched 13 seasons. It’s been on the air for 12 years, the series is in its 14th season, and for reasons baffling to some, Grey’s is still going strong.

I was watching the Season 14 premiere last Thursday, anxiously anticipating the absurd drama that ended last season. In case you forgot, a few floors of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital burst into flames, Owen’s (Kevin McKidd) 10-years-presumed-dead, army surgeon sister, Megan (Abigail Spencer), evacuated from a war zone, and her fiancé, Riggs (Martin Henderson), left Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) to be with Megan, after Meredith spent all season acting hot and cold toward Riggs, since she was still grieving the loss of her husband, Derek (Patrick Dempsey). It was kind of dramatic.

It was only after I tried to explain all of this to my friend, who had wandered into the living room unsuspecting of the tangled web of drama, that I realized this show is out of control. I can hear some people laughing when I say that, because it’s really such an obvious statement. Everywhere you look, the characters have these tragedy-ridden pasts, containing plane crashes, estranged or long-lost family members, near-death experiences, volatile relationships threatened by workplace disputes or infidelity or mysterious hangups, and lawsuits that amplify ugly personal conflict to the size of the Space Needle. Most of the time, the characters have suffered from pretty much all of these problems. And that doesn’t even touch the gory injuries, risky surgeries, and difficult recoveries that afflict the hospital’s patients, which are sometimes the doctors themselves. I could certainly go on about this, probably for 14 seasons worth of content, but I’m betting you get the picture.

All of that sounds positively horrible, right? Never mind the millions of people nationwide that are in the same boat—Why in the heck do I keep watching all this drama? I haven’t met anyone in real life that has this many gut-wrenching problems, and still performs medical miracles at work everyday. I’m sure these people exist, but I would be surprised if this situation applied to the majority of Grey’s viewers. Some might even call the show a soap opera at this point, what with the undying drama and emotional upheavals. I think the show evades this description, however, due to the organic reactions of the characters, and the no-nonsense attitude that cuts through potentially melodramatic scenes. When characters have conniptions over petty arguments or major mistakes, viewers can expect the other characters to bring everyone back down to earth and take practical steps to resolve the conflict. There’s little room for extended wallowing or self-indulgent seething on the show, and it’s refreshing to watch the characters grow, unlike the histrionic characters of a soap opera.

To some extent, the conflict of Grey’s is conventional for the genre of medical drama. The episodes contain the moral disputes and progressive social commentary that tend to arise from the subject material. The genre survives not solely on the fascinating medical cases that it presents, but also on the lives of the doctors that have to confront the diseases that shock its audience. House, M.D. gained attention due to its snarky title character, and the show’s cynical tone that twinged the medical mysteries. ER, Scrubs and Grey’s spinoff Private Practice made names for themselves, where all those other nondescript, wannabe medical dramas that you’ve never heard of have failed. There’s no shortage of medical dramas, as the framework supports full-season orders through its adaptable premise, and basically everyone is curious about or affected by medicine.

But few have had the staying power of Grey’s, and that’s in large part due to the way its magnetic, flawed characters navigate impossible situations. Given the scope of difficulties that afflict the characters, which include endearing, ordinary struggles, the audience is bound to have experience with which to relate. Yes, there are cathartic or nerve-wracking storylines, but there is also a fun, hardy sense of humor that permeates the show. The drama evolves to avoid stagnation, and the good and ugly events never overpower each other, instead presenting a familiar, lovable dynamic that keeps fans engaged. Ultimately, it’s the resilient and good-natured attitude of Grey’s Anatomy that has secured its mainstream popularity.

Featured Image by ABC