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Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) toasting champagne as she leaves the hospital, with people behind her toasting her as well Image: ABC

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Grey’s Anatomy can and should get messier without Meredith

We’re in season 19 — let the cast get soapy again

The “Grey” in Grey’s Anatomy officially hung up her scrubs. After 19 seasons, Ellen Pompeo exited the series that shot her to stardom and made her one of the highest-paid TV actresses, where she played the titular “dark and twisty” surgical intern turned Chief of Surgery Meredith Grey. Pompeo’s Meredith has anchored the long-running ABC drama through love triangles, major catastrophes, and a revolving door of cast members. Meredith is literally the voice of the show, with a voice-over that guides viewers through the week’s themes, and her character has grown up alongside the audience for the almost two-decade run of the show. Her exit begs the question: Where can Grey’s Anatomy go from here?

Many will call for the show to end (or have already), and there’s certainly an argument that the series has overstayed its welcome and produced more bad seasons than good as of late. But here’s the thing: When Grey’s Anatomy hits, it really hits, and the show still plays a vital role in society by covering topical stories with grace and heart. Just this season, Grey’s Anatomy tackled the reversal of Roe v. Wade with a devastating story about a woman’s ectopic pregnancy that required a lifesaving medical abortion, for which she had to cross state lines when doctors in her home state wouldn’t perform the procedure. Two seasons ago, the series produced a beautiful COVID-19 installment that honored the many lives lost to the pandemic in 2020. Before that, it commented on domestic violence, gay marriage, mental health, drug use and addiction, and more. There’s a place for anything under the Grey’s umbrella, and there’s still a need for its storytelling — but there need to be major shifts in the show’s primary focus to keep it fresh.

The easy answer (and the one that the writers room seems to be exploring via season 19’s new cast members) is to take the show back to its roots and put the spotlight back on the interns. When the series first aired in 2005, it was, at its heart, a show about a group of misfits who all loved one thing: surgery. With them came baggage, from Meredith’s fraught relationship with her mother, Ellis Grey, to Izzie Stevens’ past work as a lingerie model that paid for her medical school bills, to Cristina Yang’s abrasive personality and “no new friends” outlook. George O’Malley was too nice for the job, and Alex Karev had no bedside manner. The characters felt alive and real, and their backstories and developed personalities added depth and intrigue to an otherwise run-of-the-mill network procedural.

The new cast of interns on Grey’s Anatomy standing at the foot of a patient’s bed Image: ABC

The current season has tried getting back to the show’s essence by introducing a new bunch of interns vying for attention and chasing perfection, but it’s lacking in its execution. Because it’s Grey’s Anatomy, one of them has to be related to a beloved character — this time, Niko Terho steps in as Dr. Lucas Adams, who happens to be Derek and Amelia Shepherd’s nephew, a fact he is trying desperately to keep a secret. In his cohort are Mika Yasuda (Midori Francis), who lives in her van; Benson “Blue” Kwan (Harry Shum Jr.), an older, mouthy intern; Simone Griffith (Alexis Floyd), a transfer trying to hide her past failures; and Jules Millin (Adelaide Kane), another bossy perfectionist.

The problem is, these small blurbs are literally all we know about these characters. (Truthfully, I struggled to come up with a description for Jules because I don’t feel like I know anything about her, despite her being present in seven hourlong episodes so far.) Lucas is poised to become a central figure as the newest character with previous ties to the hospital — much like Meredith was when she arrived as an intern trying to prove herself as someone other than Ellis Grey’s daughter — but aside from his successful lineage, what else do we know about him? There’s been very little character development to match the highs of season 1’s intern class, despite that being in the DNA of the show.

Right now, the show is overstuffed. In its current state, it is struggling to balance the new class along with the old. Grey’s Anatomy has always been an ensemble, but the disparate storylines from legacy characters have lacked stakes and interest for a while now. No one I know that still watches Grey’s Anatomy (and yes, I do know a few!) enjoys Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd) or Teddy Altman (Kim Raver) storylines, finding their dysfunctional relationship and recycled plot points exhausting. For a will-they-won’t-they couple, they have never been that interesting. Maggie Pierce’s (Kelly McCreary) neuroticism can be grating especially as it is destroying her marriage, Richard Webber’s (James Pickens Jr.) only role is to keep the hospital lights on, and while Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) is always a welcome presence, her recent narratives (like experiencing burnout) were only half-explored.

Owen (Kevin McKidd), Ben Warren (Jason George), Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), and another woman sitting around a living room talking Image: ABC
The new interns of Seattle Mercy Grace Hospital sitting at desks in front of a teacher Image: ABC

Short of writing these characters off, there needs to at least be a paring back of their screen time to make room for newer, fresher ideas. Having a younger cast in the show’s A-plots will bring back the playfulness of the earlier seasons, which seems to have been stifled by a main cast dealing with very real adult issues like childcare and work-life balance. Stable relationships and growing families are great for character development but do not always make for interesting TV — especially this far into a show’s run.

Recentering the intern class seems to have been in the works for the past few seasons, as the hospital aimed to rebuild a reputation that had apparently taken a nosedive somewhere along the way. Top of mind for Webber and Bailey is reinstating Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital as a premier teaching hospital with a world-class internship and residency program — but while the new faces at the hospital are as cutthroat and high-achieving as the ones we began this journey with in 2005, there’s room for little else in their narratives, and that level of perfection lacks intrigue.

The early days of Grey’s wouldn’t be the same without George’s nearly botched surgery that earns him the nickname “007”; Izzie wouldn’t be the legendary character she is without her cutting Denny’s LVAD wire in the name of love; Meredith’s ill-advised entanglement with her boss, Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), launched one of the greatest love stories ever. Seeing tomorrow’s world-class surgeons making relatable, human mistakes grounded the show. Today’s interns are so laser-focused on reaching the pinnacle of their careers, there’s no room for the messy and sexy drama that made the show buzzy in the first place.

So bring back the steamy on-call-room hookups and the OR flirtations and the complex, challenging surgeries that shape and build the new interns into the next generation of great surgeons. We want love triangles and illicit work affairs, and decision-making fueled by immaturity and pure emotion. Without Meredith, it’s time to get messy again.

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