This article originally published September 16th, 2021
Grey’s Anatomy, ABC’s venerable medical drama, is about to enter its 18th (!!) season on September 30th. The beloved series has been on longer than ER (fifteen seasons), 24 (nine seasons), Mad Men (seven seasons), and The Sopranos (six seasons). As I’ve written about before, the show is my person, long a source of comfort TV. I’m often behind on every single TV show except Grey’s. If I’m doing the math right, I’ve seen all 372 episodes that have aired to date. I love it in spite of (because of?) its ridiculousness. I love that Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) forgets the fact that she has children until the show needs a very specific plot point. I love that I often cannot remember who has dated who because everyone has slept with everyone. I love the medical mysteries. I love how often the characters break the rules because “it’s the right thing to do.”
No longer the pop-culture juggernaut it once was, the show’s ratings remain strong. The 17th season finale drew 4.6 million viewers. It ended the 2020-2021 season as the sixth most popular show, beaten only by the likes of football, NBC’s This Is Us and Fox’s The Masked Singer. It is, of course, ABC’s highest-rated scripted drama and its repeats have found a second (and third, fourth, and fifth) life on Netflix.
The show has survived—in the real world—the departure of multiple cast members (only three originals remain) and lots of early behind the scenes drama (I could write a book!). In the show, the characters have survived bombs, floods, drownings, fires, plane crashes, gun shots, explosions, bad fathers, even worse mothers, and secret half-siblings.
The series will welcome back a cavalcade of returning characters in its upcoming season. Kate Burton returns as Meredith’s mother Dr. Ellis Grey (yes Ellis has been dead since Season 3 but death has never stopped anyone from appearing on Grey’s). Kate Walsh, who headlined the Grey’s spin-off Private Practice which ended nine years ago, will be back as Derek’s (Patrick Dempsey) ex-wife Dr. Addison Montgomery. Abigail Spencer, whose character was thought to be dead but was very alive thank you very much, will reprise her role as Owen’s (Kevin McKidd) sister Dr. Megan Hunt. Additionally, Peter Gallagher has signed on for a multi-episode arc; he’ll play Dr. Alan Hamilton, a former colleague of Ellis who meets Meredith in the season premiere.
Other contributing symptoms include last season’s down-to-the wire contract renewal for Pompeo, Chandra Wilson, and James Pickens, Jr. (the show’s three original cast members) which found the show being renewed for an 18th season a little over three weeks before the 17th season finale aired on June 3rd.
Is this the final season of Grey’s Anatomy? Should it be?
It’s been well documented that I will never stop watching Grey’s Anatomy. If Grey Sloan Memorial wanted to add an assisted living facility or a retirement home, I would totally watch that. Sign me up for many seasons of Grey’s Anatomy: The Golden Girls Years. But here’s my concern: If Grey’s is going to end, they need time to prepare. I need time to prepare. I don’t want a repeat of last season’s nail-biter of a renewal.
In 2017, Ellen Pompeo signed a contract that renewed the show for its 15th and 16th seasons with an option to extend the contract into the 17th. It seemed fairly obvious at that time that perhaps everyone was thinking the 17th season of Grey’s would be its last. But nobody counted on a global pandemic, which truncated the 16th season and set the scene for a 17th season no one was planning on. Last season found Meredith in a COVID-induced coma for the majority of the episodes, where she got to reunite with many beloved and deceased characters including her husband Derek (Patrick Dempsey), her best friend George (T.R. Knight), her sister Lexie (Chyler Leigh) and Lexie’s true love Mark Sloan (Eric Dane). Grey’s was one of the few shows that handled COVID in a consistent, believable, and true manner. The surprise return of fan-favorite characters was such a boon during the darkest days of the pandemic. Every episode was a little gift to long-devoted viewers. It was a creative risk for the show to place itself in the midst of the pandemic, but nothing else would have made sense. How weird would it have been for the show not to address the greatest health crises of our time?
But it would have been sad to have the final season of one of the most successful, game-changing television series of all time end after a season where its title character spent the majority of her time unconscious.
I’m not sure why contract negotiations dragged out for the entire season. It could have been about money. It could have been that Pompeo just wasn’t sure if she was ready to leave the series that made her famous quite yet. That all happens behind proverbial closed doors and it’s not for us to know.
Obviously Pompeo should do whatever she wants with her life and her career—I do not subscribe to the theory that actors owe us anything. I love that Pompeo is leading the fight for equitable pay and her contribution to Grey’s, ABC, and the TV landscape in general deserves to be recognized.
But having the future of the series in limbo placed the show in a precarious position. Executive producer and showrunner Krista Vernoff was pretty open about how frustrating it was to not know if she was working towards the show’s season or series finale.
We cannot have the show end when we don’t even know if its ending or not. When Grey’s ends it should end in Fanfare with a capital “F.” There should be magazine covers. And TV specials. Diane Sawyer should host and interview the cast. I’ve even thought of a title—Grey’s Anatomy: The Final Diagnosis.
I wish the show could last forever But I know that all good things must come to an end. I’ve accepted that Grey’s will have to end at some point. Grey’s is the crown jewel of the ABC line up. It will be remembered as one of the seminal television shows of the past two decades and among the defining dramas of the 21st century. Shonda Rhimes changed the game with Grey’s Anatomy. It cannot go out with a whimper.
So if this is it, let’s start celebrating now. I am here for any kind of countdown. Give me the announcer melodramatically saying “Coming this Thursday Grey’s Anatomy begins its season for the final time.” Bring on a weepy music montage set to “How to Save a Life.” Let’s have some of fan testimonials about what the show has meant to them (I’m available by the way). I am here for all of it.
Or announce now that this isn’t the final season and the show has been renewed for its 19th. Just don’t leave us or the viewers in limbo. If you do I will curse the show with a 1,000 Dead Dennys.
ABC needs to give the actors, the producers, the crew and the fans what they deserve: A proper farewell. As Meredith herself said, “knowing is better than wondering.” When it’s the final season, viewers should know it.
Season 18 of Grey’s Anatomy premieres Thursday, September 30th on ABC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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