Why Won't Ellen Pompeo Quit 'Grey's Anatomy' Already?

Is it just for the sake of financial security that the same actors stay in long-running shows like ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ season after season?

Ellen Pompeo as Dr. Meredith Grey in a scene from season 15 of "Grey's Anatomy."
Eric McCandless/ABC

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that actors are normal people too. Just like the rest of us, they also have mouths to feed, school fees to meet and hairapists, numerologists and nutritionists’ bills to pay.

So we shouldn’t be too judgmental when they decide to put their economic needs above their artistic ones and appear in trashy sequels that may as well be subtitled “Alimony Payment,” or opt to play it safe by playing the same character in a show that runs for longer than a toddler’s nose.

There are a couple of excellent examples on our screens at the moment with “The Walking Dead” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” 

Andrew Lincoln recently announced his decision to exit the zombie drama during the current ninth season, and I don’t remember seeing any protests saying “Rick Grimes Must Stay and Slay!” – even though Lincoln’s character has been the beating heart of the show since 2010. Maybe fans realized that the show was going staler than some of the zombies it has featured over that past decade, and that Rick’s character has only had three settings for the past six seasons: “Crazy Rick,” “Conflicted Rick” and “Comatose Rick.” If it’s dull to watch, it must also be equally dull to perform.

Another stalwart of the show, Lauren Cohan (who plays Maggie), is also disappearing, to star in a new ABC show, “Whiskey Cavalier,” and the hope must be that a new dynamic breathes new life into this stumbling corpse of a show. The first episode of season nine seems to want to take the show back to its roots (lots of horses, for sure, and one excellent set-piece in a museum), but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Lincoln is getting out at the right time.

It’s still a brave move by the British actor, who was reportedly earning $650,000 an episode in recent times – especially as he is only known to most people as zombie killer Rick (although some of us have very fond memories of him as the loveable “Egg” in the iconic British 1990s series “This Life”). Interestingly, Lincoln has already said he will return for season 10 – but only behind the scenes, when he will direct an episode of the show.

Getting the chance to direct seems to be one of the perks of staying in a show forever. Take some of the long-serving cast members in “Grey’s Anatomy,” which is set to overtake “ER” as the longest-running American medical drama during its latest, 15th, season.

Amazingly, the show has four actors who have appeared in every single episode since it debuted in March 2005. To give you an indication of how long ago that was, Facebook was still called TheFacebook.com at the time. Another way of looking at it is that the show’s hospital has changed its name more times (thrice) than these actors – Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson, Justin Chambers and James Pickens Jr. – have played different roles in the intervening years.

Of the four, Pompeo (who plays Dr. Meredith Grey, of course) and Wilson (Dr. Miranda Bailey) have both occupied the director’s chair – Pompeo a couple of times (although I’m finding it hard not to see that as the equivalent of a parent letting their kid steer the SUV in the car park), but Wilson has called the shots on a regular basis. In fact, she has directed nearly 20 episodes of the show, while another long-serving cast member, Kevin McKidd (who plays Dr. Owen Hunt), has directed 21 episodes – practically an entire season.

Set in aspic

It’s clearly one way of finding a new challenge while working in a very familiar setting (and is safer for everyone than, say, rigging electrician), although I still find it hard to contemplate anybody playing a glorified game of “Doctors & Nurses” for 14 years. It must also be very strange for the likes of Chambers (who plays Dr. Alex Karev) and Pickens Jr. (Dr. Richard Webber) to be household faces but not household names. Or maybe that’s the attraction. If you ask me tomorrow who Justin Chambers is, I will still be more likely to say “Best lawyer’s name ever” than “Grey’s’ mainstay.”

In the opener to season 15, Pompeo’s Dr. Grey tells a patient, “I am happy just as I am” – which is just as well, because she has been pretty much set in aspic since 2005. Some might say the presidents on Mount Rushmore have displayed a greater range of emotions than pouty Pompeo these past 13 years – but maybe she’s just bored?

I mean, can an actor truly be fulfilled playing the same character year in, year out for a third of their working lives? Or do they simply eye the fully filled infinity pool in the backyard and regard that as appropriate compensation?

Pompeo herself hinted that it might finally be time to hang up the scrubs after season 16 when she told Entertainment Weekly recently: “I am really feeling that we have told the majority of the stories we can tell,” adding, “I’m definitely looking for a change.”

Given that season 15 opened with the refuge of the dramatically damned – the “Dream within a dream” sequence – and the show’s most dramatic moments featured a woman being impaled on a bike and (SPOILER) a man dying after pleasuring himself in a very unconventional manner, many will agree that the show is indeed all storied out and a trip to Dignitas in Switzerland might be in order.

It will not help, of course, that the show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, is currently spinning more plates than a variety act in the Catskills, and is probably more than a little distracted by the eight (count ‘em) shows she is currently developing for Netflix.

It also doesn’t help that other networks have their own, fresher (if no more original) medical dramas: Fox has “The Resident” (Yes Drama); NBC has “Chicago Med” and “New Amsterdam”; and although CBS canceled “Code Black” earlier this year, it has several new shows in development – including a remake of a Norwegian show about four nurses (called, get this, “Nurses”) and something called “MD-1,” about a gang of “street doctors” who treat the sick and infirm in New York without ever setting foot in an emergency room or hospital. And ABC also has “The Good Doctor” (Hot 3) – the surprise hit of 2017-18, and itself a remake of a South Korean show.

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes in "The Walking Dead."
Victoria Will/AMC

Moving on

Of course, if you stay in a popular show for long enough, the subsequent financial security allows you to pick and choose your roles very carefully when you eventually move on. Lincoln has earned enough money to never work again (and if he’s going back to Brexit Britain, that may be a real possibility anyway), and I’m sure the same goes for Sandra Oh – who exited “Grey’s” in 2014 after 10 seasons as Dr. Cristina Yang and who, the internet assures us, is now worth $25 million.

But here’s the problem facing actors who opt to move on. You can leave the show, but you may not be able to leave the character behind. I just finished watching “Killing Eve” (Hot VOD) for a second time – for the simple reason that I found it impossible not to see Oh as a work-obsessed cardiothoracic surgeon rather than a work-obsessed secret agent the first time around, and it seriously dampened my enthusiasm for the comedy thriller.

It is only now, after a second viewing, that I’ve truly been able to appreciate the brilliance of the BBC America show – with Jodie Comer as the disturbingly likeable psychopath Villanelle and, yes, Oh as Eve Polastri, both earning the blackest of laughs. If you only watch one show twice this year, make sure it’s “Killing Eve” – even if the show’s musical choices did remind me of bloody “Grey’s Anatomy.”