Only three episodes into its debut season, Grey’s Anatomy finds itself thinking about brain death. I do not claim that the quality of this thinking, in a dramatic series that seeks to be a sort of “ER goes to the senior prom,” is likely to impress any licensed bioethicists. But compared with Congress in the Terri Schiavo case, the surgical residents at Seattle Grace Hospital look like Aristotle and Saint Francis of Assisi. And unlike Bill Frist, Peggy Noonan, or Tom DeLay, they are actually in the same room with the patient when they make their diagnosis, rather than on-call at the nearest television studio, sucking on the camera as if it were their feeding tube.
But before getting to brain death, the new interns in Grey’s Anatomy will have to confront transplanted livers, diseased prostates, grand mal seizures, pancreatic cancers, nail-riddled skulls, their own coarse ambitions, and a rectal exam. (Sex, of which there are generous portions, must be squeezed in between shifts, like takeout pizza.) Our tour guide through the labyrinth, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), is uniquely positioned—daughter of a famous surgeon, owner of a Seattle house with rooms to let, ambivalent about following in her mother’s workaholic footsteps but still thrilled by her first experience of blood work: “That was such a high . . . I don’t know why anybody does drugs.”
Predictably, the guy she picks up the night before starting her residency will turn out to be her doctor-boss, Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey). And supercompetitive Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) scrubs up in the OR before the others have even glimpsed the patient. And sweet, klutzy George O’Malley (T. R. Knight) is mortified every morning by womanly roommates in their underwear. Very blonde Isobel Stevens (Katherine Heigl) paid her way through med school by posing for lingerie ads — ads that excite so much locker-room comment you’d think male doctors had never seen a female body. That nobody even remarks on the fact that the interns all answer to a triumvirate of African-American doctors—Chandra Wilson, Isaiah Washington, James Pickens Jr.—almost makes up for the stereotyping of Sandra Oh.
Though Grey’s Anatomy is situated to capitalize with sex, death, and giggles on the demographic delivered by its Desperate Housewives lead-in, I’ve given up trying to predict which doctor shows will be hits and which dead on arrival. How come House is so successful, with its obnoxious Hugh Laurie, but Gideon’s Crossing wasn’t, with Andre Braugher as the feudal liege of a teaching hospital? Everyone liked Michael Crichton’s ER more than David Kelley’s Chicago Hope, even after Kelley’s tribute to The Singing Detective in a karaoke episode with an attending physician named Dennise Potter. Nip/Tuck returns and Presidio Meds doesn’t, despite a stellar cast including Blythe Danner, Dana Delany, and Anna Deavere Smith. I am at least convinced that nerve-racked Meredith and her buddy band of handsome cutups have a higher calling than liposuction, insurance fraud, grandstanding, and golf.