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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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Not many series offer female-driven plots and female characters in such volume. Perhaps more interesting, not many turn classic male-female tropes on their ear — for in “Practice’s” pastel-hued world, men = soft and women = hard. Repurposing Paul Adelstein and Benjamin Bratt from colorless roles on “Prison Break” and  ”Law & Order,” the show cast them as warm, loving baby protectors (Bratt with a dead wife to burnish the devotion factor). Brian “Mr. Madeleine Stowe” Benben (dead ex) never turns off the empathic ear; Diggs (almost-dead daughter) the familial/monogamous devotion; Daly (dead wife, dead father, dead killer mom) the healing hands (at least not until Daly himself joined the dead). In contrast to the boys’ baby blue, the girls skew raging red: superlative, diamond-hard power doc KaDee Strickland (left for dead after a brutal rape), world’s best miracle-doc Walsh (dead mother, dead bestie/ex-lover), Brenneman’s driven shrink (dead husband), Caterina Scorsone’s cocky supersurgeon (dead-in-bed True Love, dead baby). Only Audra McDonald (dead fiancé) leaned toward the traditionally female, ferocious in her maternal warmth, before the actress ditched the show to get back to diva duties on her rightful coast.

One expects deaths in hospitals, of course. Still, the doctors and their nearest and dearest do seem to suffer an unusually high ratio of casualties in Shondaland. “Grey’s” lead Pompeo was nearly done in by her own ambivalence in a multi-underwater arc; almost exploded from a bomb; almost got shot by the deranged-by-grief widower who mass-murdered various new-hire series regulars before shooting Pompeo’s McDreamy husband, not quite to death. Rhimes killed off her chilly mother Kate Burton and warmer mother-substitute Mare Winningham, one homicide interminable, the other brutally abrupt. (On “Practice” Rhimes’ mommy issues took out Walsh’s aloof, rich mumsy JoBeth Williams, Adelstein’s surprise-love-child’s moms, and Chris Lowell’s addict baby mama, before Lowell’s own car-crash swan song.) Prior to offing “Grey’s’” Knight, Rhimes snuffed out his father George Dzundza. Katherine Heigl’s treacly-beefcake True Love Jeffrey Dean Morgan half-died from her rogue acts, then fully expired, for maximum romantic heartbreak, prenuptially.

Snatching tragedy from the jaws of happy endings is another Rhimes greatest hit; we first met “Practice’s” Williams when she turned up mortally ill seeking her daughter’s powers of salvation. Rhimes abruptly slew her post–miracle cure, a heartbeat after her own dream wedding.

HIGH STAKES

These days both “Grey’s” and “Practice” are nearing their finales, closing in on their own Grim McReapers. That means a single show will soon carry the full weight of Team Shonda on its drama-queen shoulders, one perhaps best suited to its creator’s strengths. The D.C.-set “Scandal” pairs Rhimes’ propulsive plotting with stories that reverberate in today’s politically driven world, with stakes far higher than who’s-bedding-whom in the on-call room.

Star Kerry Washington plays the series’ political-crisis whisperer suppressing all natural lightness and humor, but the sheer force of her charisma, even while acting mainly in one register, compels our attention. The large cast is equally engaging; Guillermo Diaz, Columbus Short, Katie Lowes, Jeff Perry and Joshua Malina appealingly serve adrenaline-pumped story lines that resonate in our spin-dependent urgent-issues times. The multicultural mantle is again lightly worn; Washington’s married ex/True Love Tony Goldwyn may be the president of the United States, but the fact that their coupling is interracial rates nary a mention.

“Scandal” doesn’t exactly stint on the killings, but until the POTUS hot shot they were limited to dramatically relevant side plots, a promising shift. (It remains to be seen if Goldwyn’s fate will turn out to be an anomaly or a harbinger of more Rhimesian cast winnowing.) Though Season 1’s most momentous murder, that of alleged presidential mistress/blackmailer/pawn Liza Weil (hi, Paris!), has so far been nowhere referenced in Season 2’s thicket of intrigues, with all the crisscrossing plotlines there’s barely been a moment to wonder why. No doubt Rhimes will send the body bobbing up to the surface when we least expect it. (Cue shrieks.)