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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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As I began to tally up the carnage that littered all the shows in Shonda-land, noting the ballooning body count, I felt like a kidnap victim struggling to shed my Stockholm syndrome.

MULTIPLE TRAUMAS 

Today’s audiences may not recall the impact “Grey’s” had when it debuted in 2005. Years before the unvarnished joys of Lena Dunham or the off-center femmedy of Elizabeth Meriwether, Leslye Headland and Mindy Kaling, “Grey’s” offered a transgressive kick, with its empowered-slut-feminism and tables-turning lingua franca. That female characters could be ambitious and harsh and rude and happily promiscuous and flawed, be antiheroes we rooted for and not just nice girls or hot girlfriends or admirable heroines — though sometimes they could be those, too — was exhilarating and addictive fun.

From its inception Chandra Wilson and T.R. Knight were the heart of the show. Mainly spared the silly-sexcapades roundelay the other characters were made to dance, each had a potent emotional gravitas, coupled with impeccable comic timing. Their presence grounded “Grey’s,” keeping it from being “Melrose ER.” Working within the conventions of popular television, with mainstream plotlines and slicker surfaces than Dunham’s, Rhimes nonetheless brought a muscular intelligence and uniquely brazen female voice to the nighttime soap. She also introduced a matter-of-factly multiracial universe — largely unseen on television beyond the revered but little-watched “Homicide” — long before shows like “The Wire” and “Southland” rendered it unremarkable. Replacing clunky tokenism with a diverse worldview distinctly enhanced the pleasures of viewing.

“Grey’s” first began to founder after the unsubtle anti-gay pronouncements of star Isaiah Washington, a charismatic film actor whose wooden handling of the show’s medical jargon made him a somewhat stiff figure on the small screen. As if paralyzed by the public detonation, Rhimes said nothing, dispatching Washington’s character, though not fatally, then murdering the recipient of his slurs, Knight — first rendering the gifted actor a ghost forced to wander mutely through scenes with his one-time peers; then killing him for real in a grisly protracted subplot in which he was so badly disfigured, we didn’t know we’d been watching our beloved George until a traumatic 11th-hour shocker. It was as if Rhimes was punishing us for loving him.

The traumatic reveal would prove to be a signature move, as anyone unlucky enough to have witnessed the gruesome second-season finale of Rhimes’ irritatingly watchable “Private Practice” can attest. The image of shrink Amy Brenneman at knifepoint instructing an unhinged patient how to “safely” cut the fetus out of Brenneman’s own body is unlikely to be matched for pure PTSD effect — though I’m afraid Rhimes may try. She’s clearly pro-recycling: What was “Grey’s’” last plane-crash finale, after all, but a limp retread of the show’s historic shoot-’em-up hospital massacre? There are only so many Big Deadly Events an auteur can trot out to crank up suspense and reboot cast inventory from year to year. Brenneman’s evisceration would be hard to top, though; the indelible memory of that scene is a gift that keeps on giving.

BABY BLUES 

From the outset “Private Practice” netted neither its progenitor’s buzz nor critics’ approval. Voiding the charms of star Kate Walsh the instant it yanked her from “Grey’s,” “Practice” continued the formula of flawed women without granting them much dirty-pleasure fun. Because so much of it centered on baby making, it felt oddly retro — not in a good way — L.A. New Age earnestness further dulling its edge. Yet “Practice” exerted its own pull, peopled as it was with highly appealing actors, like all of Rhimes’ shows. If you didn’t care for the eternally self-actualizing Brenneman, there were four other strong women you could watch. And if you didn’t find Taye Diggs dreamy enough, here came Tim Daly and Benjamin Bratt.