The executives at ABC are becoming gruesome stage parents. First the network trotted out Desperate Housewives, its strumpety little diva darling, that derivative burlesque of Sex and the City and suburban angst and ambivalent modern womanhood. Then, with the success of that tarted-up show, ABC execs felt entitled to foist a little sister on us, mincing and prancing in the post-Desperate Housewives time slot (Sundays at 10): Grey's Anatomy, which should be renamed Sex and the Hospital. When the sanctimonious lead character started up with a wistful Ghost-of-Carrie-Bradshaws-Past voice-over, I couldn't help but wonder if I'd be able to resist throttling the TV.
Grey's Anatomy centers on the lives of five surgical interns as they face sleepless nights, hazing from residents, rectal exams, and the horrors of paint-by-the-numbers TV writing. For example, our heroine, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), wakes up and tosses out her handsome one-night stand, and then -- surprise, surprise -- he shows up as her boss.
Grey's Anatomy tries to sauce itself up with a few of Desperate Housewives' “postfeminist” dilemmas. For example, Meredith struggles with mommy issues -- her mother was a brilliant, famous surgeon who told her she didn't have what it takes to be a doctor -- while trying to balance her work ambitions, her family obligations, her conflicting desires, and her fears of intimacy. She's the feminist juggle, made manifest.
The other women interns embody more extreme versions of what TV writers seem to think is the modern woman's struggle. Isobel “Izzie” Stevens (Katherine Heigl) is a former model, Dr. Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) is a real gunner, the embodiment of naked striving, Dr. Don't Hate Me Because I'm Ambitious.
Only two actors manage to transcend the flat, nearly stereotypical writing: Oh and Chandra Wilson as the ferociously crabby chief resident known as “The Nazi.” “Don't bother sucking up to me,” she barks at the startled new interns. “I hate you already.” Oh and Wilson's characters flirt with stereotype -- the work-obsessed, ruthlessly ambitious Asian American medical student and the sassy, angry black woman. But both of these actors inhabit their characters with such fierce energy that they make them feel live wire and unpredictable.
As if in apology for creating such cracklingly bitchy women, the writers center their drama on the oatmeal charms of Meredith, who chides fellow interns for taking bets on another's potential failure. “That's one of us down there,” she says. Of the cutthroat intern culture, she muses, “There comes a moment when it's more than just a game.” After assisting in a surgery: “That was such a high. I don't know why anybody does drugs.” She's so wistful and gently tormented and altruistic that I wanted to beat her up in the schoolyard and muddy her pinafore. Miss Simpery McMartyr can't stand in for all the issues the writers toss in to give the show a touch of soft-core politics -- the real struggle to balance work, family, and love, to sift through contradictory ideas of women's place in society.
In many ways, those struggles are an effort to become as whole as possible, and the characters of Grey's Anatomy characters aren't written as complete individuals. They embody different pieces, fragmented arguments. They're straw women. We watch them bounce off one another, scrap, bitch, cry -- Frankencharacters in a Frankendrama. If only ABC would let its women-centered dramas grow up a bit before putting them on stage. As it is now, the network's latest take on the conflicts of modern womanhood is the same as its Desperate Housewives big sister -- pageantry, titillation, nothing but a show.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.