It Takes More Than McDreamy: Why Medical Shows Are So Popular

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From the new season of 'Grey’s Anatomy.' Celebrating its 250th episode.Credit: Courtesy

Anyone who knows anything about proprietary matters will tell you that the three most important things about the value of a property are – order immaterial – location, location and, last but not least, location.

And what holds true about what concerns an abode – i.e. the place where your TV set is, although the current trend is to oust the fixed-to-wall TV set in favor of a hand-held personal screen – is certainly true when the property happens to be a TV series. That is why the various “acronym” series – “CSI,” “NCIS” and I’m sure there are some more I don’t know about – spawn local franchises: CSI Vegas (the original), NY and Miami, and now Cyber (a virtual place, so to speak) and NCIS Washington, D.C.; L.A. and New Orleans.

It is in many ways a carryover from the heyday of crime novels, which used to take place in a specific, closed-off and secluded location – a castle, a hotel, an ocean liner. The locale dictates the cast: usually upper class people, masters and servants, and 50 shades of impostors. That is why a series having at its nucleus a closely-knit bunch of characters – lawyers, policemen (and women, of course) has to be situated in a particular place, hence “L.A. Law” or “Boston Legal.”

The current wave of TV series, so-called anthologies, are being hailed as a new genre in which the craft of TV aims to become “art.” They do not carry a cast of characters from season to season, but do make a point about location: “True Detective” moved from Louisiana Gothic in season one to California Noir in season two, while “Fargo” remained in snowy Minnesota and vicinity.

And yet, more important than the city or state is the human framework where it all happens. In that respect, some frameworks are more popular than others, and they keep being repeated. Most series fall into the following categories: politics, national (“The West Wing,” “Scandal,” “Veep,” “Madame Secretary”) or local (“The Good Wife”); law (“Boston Legal,” “Law and Order,” “L.A. Law,” “Ally McBeal” and “The Good Wife”), police and military (the acronym series, “Blue Bloods,” “Law and Order,” “Cold Case,” “Rizzoli & Isles”) and – last but not least – medical (“ER”, “Casualty,” “Holby City,” “Chicago Hope”).

Of all those, the most intriguing is the one with the longest run in the U.S., “Grey’s Anatomy,” created by the woman who has an acronym of her own – TGIT, Thank God it’s Thursday – Shonda Rhimes. The acronym means that ABC’s prime-time programming on Thursdays is all of her making: three popular series, all of them with strong, independent women at their center (two of them black). There is “Grey’s Anatomy,” with Meredith Grey (played by Ellen Pompeo), in its 12th season. Grey progressed from intern to resident to head of surgery, and from single to married, to married with children; she is now a widow at the Seattle Grace Hospital. “Scandal,” with Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), is now in its fifth season. Pope is a crisis manager turned presidential mistress in Washington, D.C. “How to Get Away with Murder,” in its second season, has Prof. Annelise Keating (Viola Davis) trying, with her law students, to make the title work for her and for them.

Of the trio, “Grey’s Anatomy” takes a week off next week; it is on Yes Stars Drama on Friday in the early morning, concurrently with its American airing, and repeats during the days that follow. 
(HOT is presenting all episodes of the first 10 seasons on HOT 3 and HOT VOD.)

In the new season of Grey’s, all the characters are reeling after the 250th episode, which was centered around a dinner party at Meredith’s house. The gathering was hosted by Dr. Amelia Shepherd, a neurosurgeon at Seattle Grace and a sister of the late lamented Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), Meredith’s husband, who was killed in a car accident at the shocking end of season 11.

Two possible outcomes

The other important ingredient in any series – whatever its geographical or human location – is an insoluble dilemma that raises its head again and again. In police and law procedurals it is the everlasting clash of the law and justice; in medical procedurals it’s the never-ending contest between life and death. To be precise: the police or law procedural usually begins – and ends – with a corpse, and the attending medic is usually a forensic pathologist. The medical procedural starts with a patient on the brink of death, and each episode is a sort of race, with teams assessing the injuries or diagnosing the maladies when suddenly all hell breaks loose, and the medics start frantically resuscitating the body on the gurney or the bed, with two – only two – possible outcomes: either “we have a pulse” or “I’m calling it. Time of death…”

Possibly that is what explains the popularity of medical series (apart from the appeal of particular doctors and nurses and their varying hues of skin color and sexual preference). They remind us of our own mortality and of the very slender thread on which a life – everyone’s, ours and the characters included – hangs.

“Grey’s Anatomy” refers, of course, to the famous “Gray’s Anatomy,” a textbook originally written more than 150 years ago and updated many times since. It exists online nowadays, of course, as well as in many print editions, published after the copyright expired, but not updated. Grey is also the surname of the show’s central character and of her deceased mother, who was also a surgeon, who appeared in many seasons as an Alzheimer’s patient.

There is also the fact that the young, virile, stressed medics of both sexes, whose actions can be decisive in matters of life and death, tend to reaffirm life by coupling at unlikely times and places. Between saving or not saving lives – often those of their own friends or relations – they expose parts of their own anatomy.

In its 12th season, some young interns who were the life and soul of the series have since died (George in season 6 and Derek, one of the senior staff, recently), moved on (Izzy, Addison and recently Cristina); the interns of season one are now residents and heads of departments. A new batch of interns arrives, and each one of them presents a new problem. It transpires that Penny, the current love interest of the initially bisexual and now lesbian Dr. Callie Torres, was on the medical team that possibly botched the efforts to save Derek’s life. Amelia (now a friend, with benefits, of Owen, the new head of surgery who had a troubled relationship with Cristina) is unable to accept Penny. It is up to Meredith – the show is now mainly about her coming to terms with the new phase of her life – to show that medical people are human, trying hard not to err while trying to save the lives of their fellow men (and women), and having to live with the consequences of their deeds.

While “Grey’s Anatomy” celebrates its 250th episode, it is worth mentioning that another medical drama series, “General Hospital” on ABC, celebrated its 13,000th episode in 2014, and is now in its 52nd season, while the British “Casualty” (on BBC Entertainment) is in its 30th season.

Which just highlights the fact that series that toy with death are destined for a long life.