Thursday, October 2, 2008

"Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice" Are Back, But Are They Better?

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Shonda Rhimes presides over quite an empire. She is the creator and executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC, Thursdays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern), one of the top-rated scripted shows on the air, as well as “Private Practice” (ABC, Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern), the “Grey’s” spin-off that was one of the top-rated new programs of last year’s strike-abbreviated season. But while her creations have been unquestionably successful in terms of viewership, they both have taken some hits from critics ("Grey's" for losing its way, "Private" for not finding one in the first place). With both shows returning in the last week for their new seasons (the fifth for "Grey's," and the second for "Private"), it's time to ask: Are the shows heading in the right direction?

I have often accused "Grey's" of overplaying the disaster card. It seemed like every week there would be some kind of colossal event, whether it be a ferry wreck or a patient with a bomb inside of him. I've joked that I've been to Seattle, and it's just not that exciting. And being the parent of a Seattle Grace Hospital doctor involves a higher mortality rate than cliff diving.

I'm happy to report that in this season's two-hour premiere, no parents are harmed, and no mass catastrophes befall the fine city of Seattle. In fact, not much at all is happening at the hospital, since not only has Seattle Grace been dropped from second to 12th in the rankings of surgical residency programs, but the trauma center has been demoted one level, meaning all of the real serious emergency cases are being sent across town to Seattle Mercy.

To me, this was a brilliant move, on several fronts. First of all, I think focusing the attention away from a disaster-of-the-week mentality and back on the characters shifts the program back to the formula that made the early seasons work so well, when the doctors' in-and out-of-hospital dramas drove the episodes. Even more importantly, the downgrading reflected the anarchy that had beset the surgical staff at Seattle Grace over the previous couple of years. The array of questionable conduct by the staff included an intern (Katherine Heigl's Dr. Izzie Stevens) killing a patient (her fiance, no less) in an attempt to make him sick enough to get to the top of a heart-donor list, the head cardiac surgeon (the now-departed Dr. Preston Burke, played by Isiah Washington until he went Anita Bryant on the set) operating with hand tremors and allowing his intern/fiance (Sandra Oh's Christina Yang) to do his work for him, and the renown plastic surgeon (Eric Dane's Dr. Mark Sloan) who through his lecherous behavior inspired a rebellion of the nursing staff, not to mention enough in-staff hook-ups to make the managers of a swingers' club jealous. It seemed only right that with so much going on that had nothing to with the practice of medicine, the reputation of Seattle Grace had to take a beating.

But not everything changed with the coming of a new season. The on-again, off-again romance between Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) seemed to get a resolution in least year's finale, when Meredith built a "house of candles" on the site Derek picked out for a home for them to share. But Meredith spent the whole two-hour premiere whining and freaking out about her fear of commitment after she asks Derek to move in with her. When Christina finally couldn't take it anymore and yelled at her to shut up, I think she was speaking for most of the viewing audience. I know I, at least, have had it with Meredith's dithering. Let's hope that her decision at the end of the episode to allow Derek to move in with her will end her constant whining and obsessing on the subject. It's time for her to face new demons (of which she obviously has plenty).

And "Grey's" hasn't completely lost its taste for the bizarre medical twist. Christina getting stabbed with a falling icicle was so silly, I couldn't believe I was watching the whole subplot unfold on network television. (I mean, wouldn't it just have melted in a few minutes?)

But I liked the shifted focus of the show. I like what appears to be the overriding plot line for the first part of this season, Chief of Surgery Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) cracking down to make sure that the hospital regains its high standing. When he gave a speech to the doctors about the need for them to get better, it was like Rhimes was speaking through him as to what needs to be done on the show itself. And I liked that the plots were driven by the relationships between the doctors and a handful of interesting -- but plausible -- medical cases. Christina's instant alliance with army surgeon Dr. Own Hunt, played by new cast member Kevin McKidd, might have happened to fast to be believable, but at the same time, it beats the past months of her post-Burke descent into self-pity. I think I'm okay with Dr. Lexie Grey's (Chyler Leigh) possibly unrequited crush on repeating intern Dr. George O'Malley (T.R. Knight). And I thought the subplot about stealing three trauma patients from Seattle Mercy by having their wives request it was entertaining. The story gave three well-regarded older actresses (Bernadette Peters, Kathy Baker and Mariette Hartley) the chance to really tear into some juicy scenes.

In the end, it's just good to see that Rhimes is trying to make "Grey's" better. It's a well-written, well-acted show, and it consistently looks great, too, so with the changes made apparent in the premiere, I'm encouraged that this season will be an improvement over the last.

Rhimes's work on "Private" will be more complicated, and more difficult, though. In my review of the spin-off last season, I lamented that in moving from "Grey's" to her new show, Kate Walsh's Dr. Addison Montgomery had "been reduced to a whiny, neurotic basket case." I went on to note: "For a show written and created by a woman, it's hard to believe how all of the women [on the program] are the embodiments of negative stereotypes." And I wasn't the only one who thought that a lot of work had to be done to bring "Private" up to speed.

I was a bit encouraged by last night's season premiere, since it seemed to me that Rhimes was at least trying to portray Addison as more like the strong, confident surgeon she was on "Grey's." In the episode, she stands up to her best friend, Dr. Naomi Bennett (Audra McDonald), both with a patient (fertility specialist Naomi agreed to get a couple pregnant so they could use the umbilical cord blood to save their dying seven-year-old son, but the son has a week to live, so the couple wants the doctors to induce birth, even though the fetus is only six-months old, something Addison is virulently against) and over the medical practice (administrator Naomi has created a financial mess, but she asks Addison not to tell the others, including her ex-husband Dr. Sam Bennett, played by Taye Diggs).

It was nice to see flashes of the "old" Addison. She was confident even in her indecision as she decided whether to accede to the advances of her brooding colleague Dr. Pete Wilder (Tim Daly) and/or the questionably dependable cop she met last season, Kevin Nelson (David Sutcliffe). And, maybe most encouragingly, Addison is back doing surgery.

Now it's time to rehabilitate everyone else in her practice. Naomi spent all of last season stress eating and pouting over the demise of her marriage. Not much has changed, at least not yet, based on her dour demeanor yesterday. And while psychiatrist Dr. Violet Turner (Amy Brenneman) is no longer insanely and pathetically stalking her ex, she is still a needy mess, pestering her best buddy, Dr. Cooper Freedman (Paul Adelstein), about taking their annual vacation together. But Cooper is sleeping on the sly with hospital head honcho Dr. Charlotte King (KaDee Strickland), who is still so emotionally shut off she can't handle any emotion with Cooper beyond lust. The characters are making some tiny steps forward, though. Violent recognizes her neediness with Cooper, and Charlotte makes a gesture to Cooper (even if it is a tiny, pathetic one) after cutting down his effort to move their relationship along. The evolution might be small and slow, but kudos to Rhimes for trying.

Ultimately, though, it's not yet enough. "Private" still lacks the snap and bite of "Grey's." Time will tell if the upcoming addition of "Swingtown" star and former "Melrose Place" resident Grant Show, as Addison's brother, will make things better or worse (let's hope he brings more "Swingtown" and less "Melrose Place"). But, in the end, the show will rise and fall with Addison and her fellow doctors. The "Grey's" doctors may not be all that likable, but they have enough interesting stuff going on to keep you interested. The "Private" gang isn't there yet. Rhimes seems to at least understand the problem. And that's half the battle. For both shows.