Grey’s Anatomy is still on the air. The show that introduced the terms “vajayjay” and “McDreamy” into mainstream vernacular has continued churning out 20-plus episodes a season despite you not having watched it for the last 10 years.
“My mom still watches Grey’s,” a coworker once told me in that scandalous tone usually reserved for gossip about ill-advised hookups and suspected Trump supporters. I looked away before confessing, “I still watch it too.”
That’s right. I’ve somehow watched Grey’s Anatomy for almost every season it has been on the air, often even catching it it the night it airs—usually watching it live. I cannot tell you why. Its like watching Dateline or filing my toenails. It just happens. That makes me uniquely qualified for explaining this show in its current state, and, more importantly, explaining why the hell it’s still on the air, despite you probably being able to count on one hand the number of people you know who still watch it.
So in honor of the 300th episode, which airs tonight, allow me to be your guide through the world of Shonda Rhimes’s first big hit.
Perhaps the most important question. It’s one of only about 15 scripted primetime dramas to ever reach the 300-episode mark, and it’s the first non-crime drama since ER to hit that number. So how does it endure?
Simply, because it’s still pretty damn popular. According to the Nielsen ratings last season it was in the top 20 for total viewers and the top 10 for the coveted 18-49 demo. Which means a big percentage of TV viewers are still tuning in every week.
While it’s true that Grey’s is still a ratings juggernaut, it’s also true that Grey’s has less than a third the average viewers it had in its heyday, Seasons 2 and 3. This season the premiere had around 8.07 million viewers. In its third season premiere, the highest ranked premiere it ever had, it had over 25.41 million viewers.
Grey’s Anatomy had the misfortune of airing just before the meteoric rise of cable television. As cable TV became more popular in the primetime hour, people started to migrate away from watching a handful of network shows every night. Viewership splintered as people embraced reality shows on E! and procedurals on TNT and prestige dramas on HBO. Now 8.07 million is actually a pretty good number for a premiere, even if it means a minute fraction of the country is actually watching the show, and thus talking about it over burritos on their lunch breaks.
Let’s assume you, like most people, at least kept apprised of the show in its glory years. The early seasons were about Meredith Grey (it’s her anatomy, guys) and her fellow interns, Christina, Izzie, Alex, and George. If you recall, they had to juggle ill-advised romance with their superiors while dealing with learning to be surgeons and, in Meredith’s case, a mother with a mind ravaged by Alzheimer’s.
The first season was a well written if pretty milquetoast soap opera with medical drama trappings. Season 2 kicked things up a notch by turning Meredith into an accidental adulterer with the married McDreamy, introducing Christina Ricci and a bomb into the hospital, and providing us with the whole Denny and Izzie saga, when Katherine Heigl fell in love with a sickly Jeffrey Dean Morgan and then tried to kill him to save his life (it made sense at the time).
Early season 3 was more of the same. Addictive drama. Catchy dialogue. Half-naked dudes being attractive. Towards the end, Meredith experienced a significant bout of depression that was so good at representing the real affliction that viewers started to tune out. Most people will cite Meredith’s attempted suicide by drowning and subsequent multi-episode jaunt into the afterlife as the point they tuned out.
And that’s actually pretty true! People stopped watching and thus missed Chyler Leigh’s arrival as Meredith’s quirky half-sister in season 4. Which is actually for the best because season 4 was not good TV, and ended up being cut short due to the 2007-2008 Writers’ Strike. Thus ended the Grey’s Golden Age.
I mean I’m biased, because I picked the show back up late in Season 6 and still watch it nine seasons later, but yes! Grey’s Anatomy has actually had some pretty fantastic moments in the 10 seasons since everyone stopped watching.
More characters were introduced, including Jessica Capshaw as Arizona Robbins, the first lesbian regular on a primetime network drama; Kevin McKidd as brooding Owen Hunt, the former Army doctor with a dark past; and Jesse Williams as Jackson Avery, the richest and most ripped doctor to ever saunter into Seattle Grace.
And thanks to the high body count of a medical-focused soap opera, the show has spent a lot of time dealing with how characters emotionally process trauma and grief. A plane crash might affect characters on most shows for an episode or two, but on Grey’s the ramifications are still studied six seasons later.
They don’t die as often as you think, but it is still not recommended to work at the Grey’s Anatomy hospital.
George? Dead by bus.
Lexie Grey? Crushed by the tail of a plane.
Mark Sloan, AKA McSteamy? Dead by injuries acquired in the same plane crash.
Heather Brooks, an intern played by Tina Majorino for over a season? Electrocuted in the basement during a storm.
Derek Shepherd, AKA McDreamy? Car crash and bad brain surgeons in a podunk town in the middle of nowhere.
All of them.
But seriously. You can skip most of the 300 episodes and just pick up with tonight’s episode, that’s the beauty of a soap opera. You might not know all the players, but you’ll sort out the important ones relatively quickly, particularly as some introduced way back in the pilot are still around and trying to juggle romance with doctoring.
But there are a few episodes that shouldn’t be missed:
Season 5, Episodes 22, 23, and 24: “What a Difference a Day Makes,” “Here’s to Future Days,” and “Now or Never”—The end of the fifth season marks the end of the first “era” of Grey’s Anatomy. After season 5, new cast members would come on and replace major players like Izzie and George. The doctors themselves would also graduate from interns to residents. If you’ve recently watched an episode and been confused by all the new cast members and miss the good old days, then watch these three episodes to properly say goodbye.
Season 6, Episodes 23 and 24: “Sanctuary” and “Death and All His Friends”—A shooter enters the hospital with revenge on his mind. It’s easily one of the best thrillers ever put on television. It resolves most of the major arcs of the season, gives us two gay ladies are the primary “will they won’t they” romance of the two-parter, and generally leaves you terrified as it ratchets up the tension from scene to scene. It’s the rare two hours of television that stick with you long after the fact, and because this is a serial soap opera the characters actually struggle with the trauma of facing a shooter throughout most of the next season.
Season 7, Episode 18: “Song Beneath the Song”—Grey’s Anatomy did a musical episode. It is actually REALLY bad, but the first 10 minutes are shockingly okay, and most of the cast, including Tony winner Sara Ramirez, knows how to carry a tune.
Season 8, Episode 24, “Flight”—LOL the doctors were on a plane and it crashed and at least one main character gets crushed by the plane and dies fantasizing about a happy ending with the love they’d recently broken up with (who dies in the next season from the same crash). It’s a nice reminder that weird disaster movies are so much more interesting when they star a bunch of characters you spend every week with. This also marks the end of the doctors’ residencies and thus concludes the second era of Grey’s Anatomy.
Season 9, Episode 1, “Going Going Gone”—A doctor dies, a bunch of new doctors are introduced, and Christina, shellshocked and naked in the tub, gives a haunting monologue about hearing her friend’s corpse was consumed by wolves in the woods after the Season 8 plane crash. Yeah. That happened.
Season 10, Episode 17, “Do You Know”—Sandra Oh was always one of the best parts of Grey’s Anatomy, easily the best actor on the show, who crafted a character you could root for even when she was being deeply unlikable. In this episode Christina experiences two universes. In one, she has a child with the love of her life (Owen Hunt, introduced in Season 5) despite not wanting children, and watches her career go down the toilet. In the other they stay together, but don’t have kids and Christina becomes a professional superstar while her husband becomes a miserable alcoholic. It’s Sliding Doors, but about the choice between career and family!
Season 10, Episode 24, “Fear (Of the Unknown)” - Sandra Oh finally leaves the show. Other stuff happens, but that’s all that really matters.
Season 11, Episode 21, “How to Save a Life”—Patrick Dempsey, McDreamy himself, leaves Grey’s Anatomy. His character, Derek Shepherd, narrates the hour and dies after some bad surgeons at a small hospital mess up his brain surgery. Ellen Pompeo, as Meredith Grey, gives a wonderfully restrained performance.
Season 12, Episode 9, “The Sound of Silence”—Denzel Washington (!?!) directs this episode where Meredith is brutally beaten by a patient and loses her hearing for most of the episode. In the later seasons the show has taken many stylistic gambles from episode to episode, and this one, which is largely without sound, is one of the best.
Season 13, Episode 8, “The Room Where It Happens”—Another major stylistic departure, this time directed by Debbie Allen (who is now a primary producer on the show and a main character too). Three doctors work on a patient in a single OR, each day dreams about who the patient is, but the camera never leaves the OR. It’s basically a 40-minute play named after a song from Hamilton, and totally bizarre.
Season 14, Episode 7, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”—Another Debbie Allen number, another song from Hamilton. The 300th episode of the series. It might be good!
Honestly? I don’t know. The woman has survived a bomb, shooter, plane crash, car crash, ferry crash, drowning, fire, brutal assault by mentally ill patient, earthquake, and enough professional reviews to kill a lesser mortal.
At this point the only major disaster Meredith has not faced is an alien invasion or zombie apocalypse—but there’s still hope for Season 15.