Grey’s Anatomy, and the art of tragedy

I’m going to admit, and lose a lot of “man points” by saying this, but I watch Grey’s Anatomy. It’s a show that I’ve watched for a couple of years, after a friend showed me the first season. This was, of course, at a time when Scrubs was finishing and I needed a second show in the “medical show” roster (the first being House). However, I admit, that the writing on the show is lacklustre at best. For one thing, I don’t think the actors for the original set of interns, with the exception of Justin Chambers (Alex Karev), could act very well. Secondly, especially this season, the plots have become somewhat nonsensical, including a musical episode that was a result of a character rear-ending a truck, and an almost carbon copy of the “let’s ruin a drug trial by switching the placebo!” subplot House did a few years ago.

But one of the most glaring problems with the show is that it tries to copy the formula of “Soft Rock of Despair + Death = Tearjerker” that Scrubs used to historically devastating effect. For example, in the 2004 episode “My Screw Up”, Joshua Radin‘s “Winter” is used to score Dr. Cox’s acceptance of his brother-in-law’s death.

And the reason why this works is that the writing staff are better: one of the key plots of Scrubs is evolving character dynamic between J.D. (Zach Braff) and Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley). And McGinley’s acting carries the scene; he doesn’t say a word, but he lets his facial expressions carry his character’s despair. The music is just an added touch. And contrast with the 2006 Grey’s Anatomy episode (and second season finale) “Losing My Religion” (complete final act):

There’s a contrast even in the scene; the first half has no music and is genuinely poignant, even though Katherine Heigl’s character, Izzie, is generally unlikeable (and was so especially during the Denny Duquette subplot). But as soon as Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” plays, the scene loses said poignancy. Why? First, Izzie becomes a blubbering wreck as soon as the music plays. It’s a cheap and easy way to make a character look upset, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as acting with just expressions. And secondly, the episode brings in the soap drama plot question of “who will Meredith choose?” right at the end, which just kills any sadness at all.

And it betrays the show’s quality to do this, when only ten episodes previously, the “bomb scare” episode was genuinely tense. But alas, this trend of using soft rock as a cue for “sadness ahead” was endemic in Grey’s Anatomy, whereas Scrubs’ use was much more nuanced and better for it. Any time there was an emotional scene, the soft rock would play.

Until Thursday’s episode. There was a subplot that was much more emotional and much better in every metric than any recent attempt in the show: apart from the soap opera was a story about a passenger plane going down in the Puget Sound. First, the doctors have to cope with the realisation that there are no survivors, and then the passengers’ relatives have to cope. The mid-episode twist of this subplot is that there was a solitary survivor, and seeing the guest cast’s acting, as their character’s distress as they lie about their sons being alive to give the survivor’s mother hope… and all without the soft rock.

The point is, the writers know they don’t need the music, as the music is only an added effect. But it had been used in the show as a lazy cop-out. The watershed point was most likely the terrible musical episode this season (which prompted many comments about the show jumping the shark, including from me), as if there was one lesson to be learnt from it: music cannot replace dialogue. The key lesson is that if you can’t make it work in dialogue (or lack thereof), then rewrite the dialogue, don’t slap in music and hope for the best.

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