Allow me to confess to one of my not-so-guilty pleasures… I’m a fan of Grey’s Anatomy.. This coming Thursday marks the 10th season premiere, and I will most likely be in front of my TV when it airs. I’ve seriously watched the show since the very beginning, when it began its life as a mid-season replacement before becoming a Nielsen juggernaut and next-morning’s-watercooler television, complete with companion soundtrack(s).
What I like most about Grey’s is its focus on the youngest members of Seattle Grace’s medical staff — the surgical residents. They are young, ambitious, and fresh out of medical school. They make mistakes. They have career-defining successes and soul-crushing failures. In other words, they are just like us. And in spite of the slightly declining quality of the show in recent seasons, despite all of the crazy plot devices over the years (Izzie resurrects a deer! Owen stabs pigs! George gets hit by a bus! A plane carrying 75% of the cast crashes in the woods!), it’s that dynamic — the uphill stuggle that comes with being at the lowest rung of the professional ladder — that keeps me interested.
(I’ve already noted the dearth of architectural role models in primetime television, so instead, I look for inspiration tangentially instead of directly. I’m drawn to depictions of the coming-of-age story, which I feel is at the core of any internship experience. Medical series tend to be rife with this dynamic — in college, I became an instant fan of ER thanks to Noah Wyle’s earnest portrayal of John Carter, and Scrubs, which drew humor out of Zach Braff’s inexperience, was one of my all-time favorite comedies, especially during the first few years of my internship. I looked at these guys — doctors, not architects, but equally as wet behind the ears — and in their perseverence in the face of constant challenge , I saw myself.)
But back to Grey’s, which seems to strike a balance between ER’s melodrama and Scrubs‘ tongue-in-cheek zaniness… A subplot near the end of the eighth season involved the residents … wait for it … preparing for, and taking, their board certification exam. Really. The drama came less from the exam than from seven years’ worth of interplay, seeing these characters simultaneously encouraging one another while competing at the same time. Even the results were as varied as the personalities themselves. Cristina passed with flying colors… Meredith handled the challenge competently and confidently… April failed miserably. Probably the most realistically, Alex (who was originally not even going to take the test in the first place) felt the pressure of being left behind by his colleagues, and rushed in at the last minute to sit for his exam. This arc –about a professional exam, mind you — lasted for several episodes. Imagine, for a minute, if the setting of this show was the architectural profession instead of the medical one. Would the exam settting have the same inherent drama? Would anyone want to watch? Would we have to call the show Graphic Standard?
(If there ever were a weekly series about architects, I’d hope that it would contain this kind of dynamic — the passing of the baton to a new generation, the transfer of wisdom that comes with experience. And if they need someone to play the good-looking lead character, with perfect hair, living in his Airstream trailer out in the woods… give my agent a call.)
To me, one of the most effective parts of the show has been its dedication to refreshing the cast through a new crop of surgical interns. We’ve watched the core cast develop and grow, over the course of seven seasons, into confident, experienced professionals. This past season, in their place came a new group of recent graduates — recurring guest stars last season, now promoted to the regular cast — and it’s through their perspective, their inexperience, that we are able to appreciate how far their peers have come. This was illustrated quite poignantly in one of last season’s early episodes (x9.08, “Love Turns You Upside Down,” for those of you keeping score at home), which saw the interns pull their first grueling 24-hour shift. On their way out of the hospital, physically and emotionally exhausted, they literally run into their mentors, now level-headed fully-minted physicians, acting during a triage situation.
Two groups, at opposite ends of the spectrum, with only time and experience separating them from one another. The students have become the teachers, and with a new group of interns, have an opportunity to share what they themselves have learned. The silence is broken when one of the interns exhales: “I can’t believe they used to be us.”