'Grey's' Theology

"’Grey’s Anatomy’ is currently the No. 1 television show in the universe." That’s what the Web site announced with some exaggeration, but at least in the United States, "Grey’s" reigns supreme: More than 19 million households gravitated to its last show in February, putting it temporarily ahead even of "American Idol."

Why the popularity? Some reasons are obvious: The dozen major actors on the show are good-looking and the plots, woven around the lives of doctors at a Seattle hospital, use soap-opera traditions overlaid by modern bed-hopping that ratchets up relationship tension. But the show is unusually thoughtful.

"Grey’s Anatomy’s" lead character, Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), normally has first and last words on the show — and many of her comments seem almost biblical in their analysis of human failing. For example: "We lie to ourselves so much that after a while the lies start to seem like the truth. We deny so much that we can’t recognize the truth right in front of our faces."

"Grey’s" is psychologically dark. Show creator and executive producer Shonda Rimes, a product of Chicago Catholic schools, writes on one blog about her lead character, "She is somebody, in a very large sense, without a home, without a family, without ties, without (anyone) when you first met her … you all know Meredith’s been doing a dance with death for some time."

A three-part series last month that advanced "Grey’s" ratings had Meredith not positive that she wants to go on living, until she goes through a near-death experience and realizes that she loves others who need her. Her boyfriend Derek is also changed, according to Rimes: "He’s forced to sit out in the hall, helpless. And he’s seeing his worst nightmare come true. Because he’s realizing: Meredith has become so important to him and the prospect of losing her is terrifying."

Lots of loneliness in a busy city. Lots of terror amid affluence. Lots of lostness among people who have directed their lives for years toward a particular calling that often seems touched with nobility. And if high-achieving physicians, the gods of modern America, feel that they are in the gutter gazing up at untouchable stars, what hope do mere mortals have?

The title "Grey’s Anatomy" alludes to a classic medical textbook, "Gray’s (with an A) Anatomy" but also suggests a close-up look at what human beings are really made of. That’s a common theme in Meredith’s opening and closing voiceovers. In describing misery she says, "Maybe we like the pain. Maybe we’re wired that way." She notes that we learn that communication is important, but we still don’t know "how to ask for what we really need."

"Grey’s," in short, provides a pretty good analysis of contemporary life (solitary, not so poor, but nasty, brutish, and short). Its semi-solution includes no verticality (as far as the central characters are concerned, God might as well be dead) but lots of temporary horizontality, as characters get through their days and nights by hooking up and developing short-lived community.

Yes, the diagnosis is right, and that’s rare on television. Meredith says that we rebel against parents, and then, "without parents to defy, we break the rules" — including the rules we’ve adopted for ourselves. She notes, "We throw tantrums when things don’t go our way."

But do the tantrums of "Grey’s" characters lead to God? No. Jesus gave a two-sentence executive summary of the Bible’s commandments: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." "Grey’s" skips the first to emphasize a chunk of the second, yet without the first the second has no lasting power.