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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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Kate Walsh, Ellen Pompeo and Kerry Washington

 
 
 
 

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.”

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.

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.)

One of the more resonant subplots of this year’s “Scandal” began with Guillermo Diaz’s endearingly damaged operative sharing at an AA meeting — though the addiction he (obliquely) confessed to being powerless over was not alcohol but violence — torture and murder. The soft-spoken recovering assassin had never previously shown any qualms about the hands-on skills that had helped land him a key post at Kerry Washington’s side. Yet events suddenly found him a bit too eager to dismember a body when it wasn’t, shall we say, strictly necessary. In that moment it was hard not to see him as a stand-in for his creator, the gifted, prolific, confounding Rhimes.

The first step, of course, is admitting you have a problem.