How the medical drama continues to reinvent itself after nearly two decades on the air

By | March 18, 2024

Grey’s anatomy goes back to the beginning.

The longest-running medical drama is preparing to launch its 20th season on March 14, ending a 10-month wait for viewers due to writers and actors’ strikes. The ABC series honors the past while charting a path forward amid years of cast departures, including a limited presence for star and executive producer Ellen Pompeo and several creative resets.

Despite changes in front and behind the camera, Grey’s anatomy remains ABC’s crown jewel in primetime and continues to be one of network television’s most consistent ratings figures – an increasingly difficult feat to accomplish as it reaches the rarefied broadcast TV scene.

According to Nielsen’s streaming charts: Grey’s anatomy consistently ranks among the top-streamed TV shows on streaming platforms. Last season, the program averaged 10.7 million delayed viewing viewers across linear and digital platforms, making it ABC’s No. 1 entertainment series. It is also one of the most profitable franchises for Disney, reportedly generating $3 billion.

It’s no wonder that the new season of Grey’s anatomywhich will be overseen by new showrunner Meg Marinis – whose history with the show dates back to Season 3 – will be a celebratory affair.

“I am a huge fan of the show and working on it – and have been since the very beginning,” Marinis tells Yahoo Entertainment. “No one gets 20 seasons and I felt we should honor the show that got us here.”

Created by Shonda Rhimes, Grey’s anatomy debuted as a midseason replacement in the spring of 2005 with an all-star ensemble led by Pompeo, Sandra Oh, Patrick Dempsey, Katherine Heigl, Justin Chambers, TR Knight, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens Jr.

Grey’s Anatomy stars, from left, Isaiah Washington, Eric Dane, Justin Chambers, Patrick Dempsey, Sandra Oh, Katherine Heigl, TR Knight, Chandra Wilson, James Pickens Jr., Sara Ramirez and Ellen Pompeo. (Bob D’Amico/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

The series quickly skyrocketed in popularity and became a pop culture phenomenon. The most-watched episode is the explosive post-Super Bowl episode from 2006, which attracted 37.8 million viewers.

Although many of the original cast members have left (some returning for memorable arcs) and new characters have been introduced, the show’s formula has remained the same. Grey’s anatomy chronicles the complicated personal and professional lives of interns, residents, and attending physicians at Gray Sloan Memorial Hospital, formerly Seattle Grace.

In addition to soapy romantic entanglements, the show keeps audiences captivated through a mix of strange medical cases (a man with tree hands in Season 7), bizarre emergencies (a pregnant man in Season 2) and life-or-death stakes. doctors (Meredith holds a bomb in a patient in season 2).

Season 20 is a return to the classic Gray Days, Marinis says, a recognition of the iconic characters that have passed through the hospital halls, unusual patients and two decades of history. Parallels to early seasons and key characters long gone are prevalent throughout the nostalgic premiere episode, which marks the franchise’s 421st hour. (For example, the medical emergency at the heart of the Season 20 season opener involves an AI-powered self-driving vehicle.)

“We haven’t been on the air that long, so I want to give people old age Gray and I want to give them some of that Gray that has everything,” Marinis explains, describing the new season as “a reset.” “Your heart is pounding because of the action, I want rom-com stuff, I want stuff that’s hilarious, I want stuff that makes you cry. I wanted to convey every emotion Gray is known for pandering to one episode.

“I wanted to say, ‘Fans, we’re here and we’re back. We are still who you love,” she says. “And also the idea of ​​honoring where our characters have been. Even though we may have seen certain people in certain roles, they come to it with a different experience because it’s twenty years later.

The new season picks up in the immediate aftermath of the Season 19 finale, after Teddy’s (Kim Raver) operating room collapses just as she is about to perform a potentially life-saving surgery on a patient, Sam Sutton (guest star Sam Page). Under great time pressure, the interns decide to continue with his operation, the consequences of which will become clear during the premiere.

Other lingering finale threads also remain in limbo, most notably the status of Meredith Grey’s research, which is now at risk of losing funding after she publicly shared her radical new Alzheimer’s theory.

“One of the themes we have been working with is the idea of ​​’back to basics’,” says Marinis. “Because so many characters had so many tough moments at the end of last season’s finale, they have a long road to come back from that — and to think about how you come back from big things.

“I like clutter because it’s fun to undo it: ‘Let’s tie all the character stories into big knots.’ I love it when fans ask, “How are they coming back?” It was such high adrenaline and high emotion that we didn’t want to miss a moment. Even though we answer a lot of things in the premiere, we’re still going to unpack what everyone went through in last year’s finale [throughout the season].”

Familiar faces from the past, such as Jessica Capshaw, who played Dr. Arizona Robbins will return in the April 4 episode almost six years after her departure. The last time audiences saw the character in 2018, Arizona decided to move to New York with her daughter to reunite with another. Grey’s anatomy alum, Dr. Callie Torres (played by Sara Ramirez).

“When Arizona came up, it was pitched in conjunction with a story that was perfect for the character and so the stars aligned well with her schedule,” Marinis teases. “We have an open-door policy – ​​we let people come and go – and it’s a way to honor where the show has been by seeing old characters return and interacting with new characters. The hospital has changed quite a bit since she’s been here.’

Pompeo’s lightened workload continues Grey’s anatomy continues in season 20, where she is expected to appear in at least four episodes. The premiere sets up a season-long storyline involving Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) that creates a way for Meredith to organically weave in and out of the show.

“In my mind, everyone is still texting and talking off-screen. Meredith also works for the Catherine Fox Foundation, so I don’t feel like we’ll ever be able to find a way to get her through it,” Marinis explains. “But the premiere does introduce a way of how that will work.”

Ultimately, the producer believes in ‘the essence’ of Grey’s anatomy is still firmly intact.

“The heart of the show – what Shonda founded 20 years ago – is still there. Even though Meredith isn’t in every episode, her voiceover is, and it still feels like Meredith is here the whole time,” Marinis says.

Grey’s anatomy premieres March 14 at 9pm ET on ABC.

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