Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Grey's Anatomy and Dystopia (3)

On Thursday, the 15th of February, Grey's Anatomy killed Meredith Grey.

The context (Feb. 8th show) : A ferry disaster. Many dead. Meredith and the other interns go to the scene. It looks like a terrorist attack. The orchestration of this scene, with people moving about, ambulances arriving and departing, individual people standing in a traumatized fashion and in particular, a little girl whose stillness amidst the chaos becomes both the marker for the scene and the center of the action, the orchestration of this scene was one of the great moments in modern television.

The Choreography: Among the key elements, the response of the interns, their ability to think quickly, speed of diagnosis. Meredith treats a man near the water's edge and he knocks her into the water. As the Feb. 15th show opens she is shown gasping for air. The shot is at the level of the water and is essentially a portrait with Meredith's face filling the screen. As the camera travels over the water, her body goes up and down, a dance with death.

I won't go into the details of Meredith's rescue or the effort to save her. As the show ends, she is doing the white light thing and waking to ask if she is dead.

As it happens, that most dystopic of characters, Larry David in his last show of 2006 Curb Your Enthusiasm dies, follows a white light and meets Dustin Hoffman and Borat in 'heaven'. Of course, Larry David is making fun of the TV convention that transforms death from nothingness into an out of body experience, and the significance of his cynicism is perhaps best exemplified by the 'angels' he meets and the manner in which his family responds to his death. The family starts to argue about his estate and so on. My point is that Grey's Anatomy is being equally self-conscious within the context of an historical time where the divisions between people who have faith and those who have lost it, is extreme.

The television discussion forums found the show to be unrealistic. That is not the point. Meredith's fake death, like that of Jack Bauer in 24 or even Larry David, are all symptoms of the paranoia that characterizes dystopias.

These are meant to be hopeful responses to the inevitable pain and suffering that sits at the edges of daily life. For some, the metaphor of white light might suggest hope. But, the problem is that on the horizon, sometimes in your neighborhood, perhaps next door, there is always the possibility that violence and death will mark your life (hence, the dark and terrifying images that sustain Sleeper Cell, an HBO show about the constant presence of terror in everyday life.) Or, the Feb. 12th show of 24 where even Jack's father is a terrorist, though of a different sort, who kills his other son and tries to kill his daughter-in-law and kidnaps his grandson.

Darkness looms whenever there is light. Meredith will not die. Viewers know that. But, unfortunately, the show will now focus on her resurrection, on the lessons learned and on new levels of sensitivity among the characters as they come to value each other more than ever. This is hinted at in Izzie's last monologue which talks to the need for honesty among friends.

Shonda Rimes, the creator of the show, wrote the script for these episodes and the only way to characterize her work here is as a fairytale writer. This is not a negative. I love fairytales. Except, under the guise of greater realism, this is a fairytale about the inevitable presence of disaster within daily life. And, it self-consciously explores what it means to live at the edges of despair, where hope is more of an interruption, than part of the continuum. That might be the beginning of a definition of dystopia.

To be continued.....