Original Airdate: 10-28-10
So here’s a thing you probably don’t know about me. Long before there was a Grey’s I used to curl up in bed with my husband (long before he was my husband) and watch medical shows. Not scripted medical shows – but those documentary shows with real life patients and real life doctors. I was particularly fond of watching surgeries – the more gory and graphic, the better. (Now that I think about it, I was a little obsessed with surgery, not unlike our Grey’s residents – but that’s not the point.)
The point is that, this summer, as I was enjoying my last few days of maternity leave, I found myself searching for a new medical show to watch. I was hoping I’d find something inspiring. Or, at the very least, something with a cool surgical idea I could pitch when I went back to work the next week…
See, at the beginning of every season, it’s our assignment to walk in with ideas for the upcoming year. Big ideas, little ideas. Any ideas, really, to jumpstart everyone’s sleepy brains. And I was coming off of maternity leave. I hadn’t written an episode of Grey’s since 2009. My brain was very, very sleepy.
Enter, Boston Med.
Now, for those of you who missed it, Boston Med was a documentary-style medical show that aired this summer on ABC. It was pretty great. So as I was lying there, watching Boston Med online (really quietly so as not to wake the sleeping baby in my lap) I was – as it turns out – totally inspired. Not by a particular medical case or a patient or a doctor – but by the show itself. By the entire medical-documentary genre. I LOVE these shows. They always suck me in. They always make me cry. Why couldn’t I turn an episode of Grey’s into one of these shows?
Turns out, I could.
Luckily, Shonda was totally on board with the idea. She pretty much let me run with it– which was AWESOME. And as it turns out… REALLY REALLY HARD.
I can’t tell you how many times, as I was trying to wrap my brain around how exactly to turn an episode of Grey’s into something that was Not-Grey’s-But-Still-Grey’s-But-Not, I just kicked myself. I mean, really? I had to pitch THIS episode as my first episode back? I was already feeling totally rusty and I was pretty sure I’d completely forgotten how to string two sentences together – let alone write a whole script -– and here I was trying to come up with a totally new kind of episode?? Was I crazy????
Probably. But I wrote the thing anyway – all 135 scenes of it (to give you an idea of how crazy that is, a typical Grey’s script is around 48 – 52 scenes.) And so… here we are.
Seattle Medical: Road to Recovery.
The best part about writing this episode was getting to break our usual Grey’s Anatomy rules. I was able to tell stories in a completely different way. In fact, it was essential I approach the stories differently. I had to think like a documentary filmmaker. And that was seriously fun.
For instance, for the first time in Grey’s Anatomy history, we were able to go home with our patients. We see where they live, what kind of car they drive, what their living rooms look like. We never do that.
I was also able to have patient scenes that did not include any of our Grey’s doctors. That’s one of the things that really struck me about Boston Med. The testimonials from the patients and their families were always so compelling – I wanted to mimic that here. One of my favorite testimonials in this episode is the one Nicole, the arm donor’s wife, gives about her husband getting his tattoo. It’s somehow so much more emotional having her talk to the camera instead of talking to one of our doctors. It’s like she’s talking directly to us.
Which is why I love the Meredith and Cristina interviews. I think Richard probably asked Mer and Cristina to sit down for the cameras, as the face of the Seattle Grace residency program. And as the resident twisted sisters, Mer and Cristina are bound and determined NOT to reveal anything true or real about themselves. They plan to put on a show and be all perky and happy and charming and not dark or twisty at all. Which works for a while, until it all begins to unravel.
What I love is watching Meredith take on such a maternal role toward Cristina. She knows that Cristina has been struggling, and she sees Cristina beginning to crack under the pressure of the interview, so she jumps in and tries to help her best friend out. Mer’s trying to protect Cristina. But what’s interesting is that, the minute Mer steps in, Cristina can’t go on with the interview. There’s some residual Mer/Cristina friction that we’re only seeing a tiny little glimpse of here, and this type of episode is the perfect way to bring that to the surface.
Also – I was able to end the stories differently, by using the chyrons. Take Mary’s story – we don’t see the moment where her husband actually pulls the plug, but we read about it on the bottom of the screen. I tried to end all of the stories with an interesting final punch like that. Sometimes with something funny, like how the hospital’s fancy new security measures were ultimately removed. Sometimes with something moving, like how the arm transplant guy got a tattoo under his tattoo that read, “thank you.” Or something that just makes us fall in love with one of our people, like when you find out that Lily took Alex Karev to her fourth grade class for show and tell.
By the way, I don’t know about you, but I am now FULLY in love with Alex Karev. I mean, I kinda already was in love with him, but now I really, really am. When he’s singing to Lily in the MRI booth??? I mean, COME ON. (Side Note: Justin actually has a really good voice, so he practiced for weeks before we shot this scene to make himself sound more like a guy who wasn’t really a singer, but who was really trying to sing. Adorable.)
But the moment that really makes me fall in love with Alex Karev is when he holds the trachea up from its petri dish and says: “Check it out. Home grown trachea.” And then he gives us that little smile. Love it. Love seeing Alex get all excited about medicine. And I love seeing him be there for Lily – even sleeping in the parent cot – because she’s alone and her own parent can’t be there. Love. Alex. Karev.
Another great thing about an episode like this was getting to pick and choose the moments that would actually be caught by the camera crew. For instance, there’s no way Callie and Arizona would have a heated argument in front of cameras, so we only catch a tiny little bit of it on screen. But the moment is so much more interesting and tense because what we do see is Callie trying to put a spin on it later. Even though she’s trying to be diplomatic for the cameras, her real feelings are crystal clear. It’s obvious she’s angry and hurt and upset – and she manages to convey all of it with a smile on her face for the cameras. So, so, so cool.
I did try to preserve a few of our usual Grey’s motifs – like our typical final montage. I did a Seattle Medical version of it. Because Cristina cut her interview short in the previous act, I felt that the documentary crew would probably, four weeks later, have asked her to come in and complete the interview. And at this point, I think Cristina has pulled herself together, steeled herself for the interview, and rehearsed her talking points. She is ready to rattle off exactly what she thinks they want to hear, and nothing more. She is not about to lose it in front of the camera again. She is ready. And Sandra played it beautifully. The words are articulate, but hollow. You can tell she doesn’t actually believe them for a minute. And there is only the slightest hint of vulnerability when she answers the final question.
I loved being able to use that interview as the final voice over. And I loved that the montage was a series of moments the Seattle Medical crew probably filmed as B role, throughout the day, not knowing how or where they would fit into the episode. Some of the moments are so mundane – Derek walking down a hallway or Meredith working in the ER. And others are just so horrible, like Bailey crying on the gurney. (By the way, when we shot that scene, even though it’s silent and even though it’s literally just Chandra on a gurney with her head in her hands – when we shot it, there wasn’t a dry eye on set. THAT’S how amazing Chandra Wilson is. Just saying.)
The other thing I love about the ending to the episode is that, in that final scene, it’s the only time in the entire episode we hear the off camera interviewer. There’s this flicker that crosses Cristina’s face, before she answers with, “being a hero has its price.” It’s the most honest she has been all episode, probably all season. I love that it takes a camera crew full of strangers to bring such honesty to the surface, when Cristina has not yet been able to be that honest with her husband, her best friend, or even, really, herself.
So, in the end, I guess it’s good I’m a crazy medical junkie so intent on enjoying my last few days of maternity leave. Because ordinarily, I never have time to just curl up in bed and watch TV. Which is how I stumbled across Boston Med. Which was the inspiration for this entire episode. Which was, as it turns out, unbelievably fun to write.
Now I just hope the baby on my lap wasn’t scarred by waking up in the middle of me watching all that gory, gory medical stuff. Hopefully not. Maybe she’ll just grow up to be a medical junkie like me.