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"Girls," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice" -- How Once-Great Feminist Programming Let Us Down

The shows once exalted the complex, brash antiheroine. Then things got grisly.
 
 
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No one died in last week’s episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Though the institution of marriage was certainly on the chopping block: Sandra Oh’s union was dealt a fatal blow, lapsed virgin Sarah Drew gleefully fled a shotgun wedding, and any remaining sexual chemistry between Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey was killed by baby-making issues. Chandra Wilson spent the hour dreading her impending nuptials until Oh persuaded her to accept the rite as a necessary evil: just strap on the dress and think of England.

Watching the show’s alternately unconvincing, saccharine, tart and touching plot threads wend toward their conclusion, I steeled myself for the inevitable jolt of violence I’d learned to expect from “Grey’s” and its OB-GYN spinoff, “Private Practice.”

To my surprise, the episode ended benignly. Letting down my guard, I settled in to enjoy the twisty political adult soap “Scandal,” grateful writer-producer Shonda Rhimes (the force behind “Grey’s” and “Practice”) didn’t feel the need to deploy visceral bloody shocks to heighten suspense on her youngest series.

And then, a split-second before “Scandal’s” credits rolled, I watched a key romantic character — the president of the United States — get felled by a bullet to the head. As I recoiled from the image on-screen, I realized how frequently Rhimes’ shows had me turning from my evening’s entertainment with a shriek.

SHONDA WORLD

No one can deny we live in a violent universe. In these times of “real” rape and mandatory pregnancy, with warfare flaring up around the globe as regularly as the next climate-change-powered natural disaster, I understand the desire to reflect something other than a bright shiny Pollyanna view. An African-American woman in Hollywood — even one who’s amassed an adult-drama TV empire, no mean feat in our cartoon-superhero age — surely has seen her share of ugliness. Rhimes should be free to exercise and exorcize whatever demons haunt her. And for years she’s done just that, deploying a rich blend of gifted actors in chewy lowbrow adventures elevated by goofy-sarcastic wit and inexplicably compelling twists. But those of us previously not embarrassed to be fans now regularly find ourselves hostages of Rhimes’ sadistic skills, wanting to look away, powerless not to watch, punished for doing so. Like horror-movie actors doomed to be sliced up for having sex, we’re seduced by Rhimes’ soap opera tactics, titillated by her flinty-comic voice, then decimated by her bloody plotting, her propensity for mutilating and murdering her characters — and torturing her viewers.

Rhimes began the uneven final season of “Grey’s” dodging a resolution of her previous gory cliff-hanger, limply setting up new plot threads as if she were weary of its ninth year’s grind. The opener and episodes that followed struggled to find a footing tonally, with alternately slack and wobbly storytelling that did not reflect the series at its best. Yet one constant element shone through: Rhimes’ blood lust for the grisly reveal, a sudden stick in the eye to viewers who’d been naively lulled into a sense of enjoyment. Eric “McSteamy” Dane’s protracted murder — while the blood was still drying from his True Love Chyler Leigh’s own brisk character/contract termination — was an oddly halfhearted effort, but the abrupt, brutal display of Jessica Capshaw’s mutilated body was vintage Rhimes.

A recent parallel-losses episode of “Grey’s” ended with Oh watching her new bestie William Daniels keel over dead across the open body of a surgical patient. Oh fled to the arms of her original True “Person,” Pompeo, who’d spent the hour haunted by her deceased half-sister as she fought to save a patient whose plight echoed that of Leigh’s newly dispatched character. “Lexie’s dead,” Pompeo told Oh by way of greeting, a long-delayed acknowledgment. “I know,” said Oh. “Everyone is.”