GREY'S ANATOMY: SEASON ONE
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"A Hard Day's Night," "The First Cut Is the Deepest," "Winning a Battle, Losing the War," "No Man's Land," "Shake Your Groove Thing," "If Tomorrow Never Comes," "The Self Destruct Button," "Save Me," "Who's Zoomin' Who?"
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: SEASON TWO
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"The One Where Michael Leaves," "The One Where They Build a House," "Amigos," "Good Grief!," "Sad Sack," "Afternoon Delight," "Switch Hitter," "Queen for a Day," "Burning Love," "Ready, Aim, Marry Me," "Out on a Limb," "My Hand to God," "Motherboy XXX," "The Immaculate Election," "The Sword of Destiny," "Meet the Veals," "Spring Breakout," "Righteous Brothers"
by Walter Chaw A show so odious, so repugnant, that it's impossible not to have predicted its newly-minted role as the most popular program in the land, Shonda Rhimes's "Grey's Anatomy" has the singular distinction of transforming the adorable Ellen Pompeo into a shallow, whorish version of Doogie Howser, practiced in the art of interspersing extraordinary, near-savant leaps of medical intuition with rolling in the hay with her boss, the hipster-dubbed Dr. McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey). When Dr. Meredith Grey meets a new patient, lay you even money that his/her pain and suffering will be used to augment Meredith's face-swallowing, thirtysomething pout, which is one thing--making her brilliant ex-doctor mother a victim of prime time soap opera Alzheimer's for the same ends is something else altogether. Other alternatives include Dr. Meredith babysitting a severed penis in a Coleman cooler and, better, her lingerie model-turned-MD cohort intervening on behalf of a man undergoing erection-threatening prostate surgery. What better way to end the season, then, but to do a whole episode about a syphilis epidemic sleazing like wildfire through the show's Seattle Grace Hospital?
It's the kind of series that opens and closes with a mealy voiceover that tries to craft coherent themes from the whimsical sexploitation/medsploitation antics (the better to make a play for a writing Emmy)--voiceovers that are indistinguishable (and this is not a good thing, if unquestionably a very telling thing) from Margaret Cho's blog entries. A peek at the opening credits--and a listen to the excruciating "Desperate Housewives" score and alt-pop faves that comprise its wall of sound (watch with the subtitles activated and discover every last Tegan & Sara ditty carefully annotated)--finds the series' creators thinking it clever to juxtapose the zipping of a black evening dress with the tying of surgical scrubs, an IV drip with the pouring of a martini. The humour isn't black, though, some kind of magnification of the kind trailblazed by "M*A*S*H" and "St. Elsewhere" as you'd hope. Rather, it's puerile, inappropriate, not funny, and not titillating. There's a moment where ball-breaking mama Dr. Bailey (Chandra Wilson) warns her interns not to laugh prior to viewing a woman with an eighty-pound tumour, and the obvious question is: exactly what's so hilarious about an 80 lb. tumour? Worse, it's not insightful in any way--just tits and gore, the sort of cheap, too-hip boner and barf gags generally disdained by the exact audience tuning in week in, week out, making this The Passion of the Christ for network television.
Maybe the outward hatred of weakness, age, and ugliness is the key to the show's success. More probably it has something to do with the glib way it pushes its sextet of the young and the beautiful into opposite corners for ostensible dramatic effect. The constant cruelty towards stupidity, obesity, and possible homosexuality, however, speaks pretty clearly to me that its allure is owed to the monkey desire to feel superior to the same people to whom these supermodels feel superior, thus allowing us to fantasize that we are in any way like them or, conversely, that they would have any of the same problems us mortals would. And then there's George (T. R. Knight), the token fat, stupid one who almost kills a patient in the pilot, allowing us to believe that it's this weakness with which we identify and not the rest of it. Consider the episode where brittle, ruthless, unbearably hostile, unmistakably Asian intern Yang (the singularly hostile Sandra Oh--who, of course, won a Golden Globe for this performance) learning that she's pregnant and arranging for an abortion, has a few scenes of self-righteousness with a cancer-ridden patient who chooses to have her baby instead of chemotherapy. Yang's discourse is so abrasive and unyielding that it doesn't speak to her character being consistent so much as her character being a cyborg and, by extension, to the show being a gallery of human pain that, Bruce Almighty-like, has been elicited to teach extremely shallow people how to experience slightly different feelings along their limited emotional range. Perhaps there's something there its audience can identify with after all.
The extent to which "Grey's Anatomy" is a diary of arrested development is underscored by its jejune subplots of George trying to work up the courage to ask Meredith on a date (!); of George, Meredith, and Izzie (Katherine Heigl) becoming uncomfortable, "Three's Company" sexually-tense roomies; and of the rakish foil Alex (Justin Chambers, arguably the best thing about the show in his unabashed asshole-ness), who appears in each episode to give the central quartet opportunities to demonstrate brain, heart, and courage as necessary. Take a half-step through the cow guts and shots of Izzie's Hello Kitty! panties only to reveal "One Day at a Time" behind the curtain. The substitutes for character development are mothers and daughters losing husbands and fathers, guys who've shot nails into their skull discovering that they have inoperable brain cancer (both incidents leading to awkwardly-conceived sequences where one of our protagonists is taught a life lesson no human being could possibly need to learn at this stage in their development), and Izzie revisiting her trailer-park/naughty-model past in humiliating sequences involving the aforementioned prostatitis patient, an epileptic psychic, and an ersatz strip in a locker room. It's ignorant bullshit, the television analog to Alanis Morrisette's "Ironic" song in which nothing described therein is actually ironic (which of course renders the whole thing ironic), and proof positive that the broader the acceptance for a cultural product, the more questionable is its actual value as mature art.
Further proof is the failure of Fox's "Arrested Development" after three ratings-impaired seasons of inspired writing, extraordinary performances, and a perfection of the laugh track-less situation comedy. And while the show is snarky and post-modern to the point of modeling an entire episode on Charles Schultz's "Peanuts" strip, its hard, sarcastic shell covers one of the most affecting, heartening family dramas in modern television: moments where sons pine for closeness with their fathers and where siblings relate to one another in subtle ways forged from a lifetime of familiarity balance the veneer of surrealism and sometimes-cruel happenstance. There's suffering here, but it's of the self-inflicted or congenital variety, and when push finally comes to shove, the instincts of the Bluth family are in closing ranks. The greed and venality that drives the show's plots is only the thin frame around the family crest.
Michael (Jason Bateman), who becomes head of the Bluth's hopelessly-mismanaged construction company when their father (Jeffrey Tambor) is imprisoned for embezzlement, is trying to turn the fortunes of his family's business around while raising his young son George-Michael (Michael Cera). Thoughtless sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and brothers Buster (Tony Hale), a mama's boy, and Gob (Will Arnett), an aspiring stage-magician, are his chief anatagonists; mother Lucille (Jessica Walter) is a cast-iron lush; niece Maeby (Alia Shawkat) is an attention-starved pathological liar (with whom his son is in love); and eccentric "never-nude" brother-in-law Tobias (David Cross) is an ex-therapist-turned-actor-turned-Blue Man Group-understudy. In its man-against-impersonal-authority theme, its mild surrealism, its rat-a-tat scripting, and its razored wryness, "Arrested Development" is the inheritor of the postwar Ealing Comedies (whereas "Grey's Anatomy" is more foul excretia in the "Sex and the City" mode). When Tobias spends an entire episode spying on estranged wife Lindsay by standing against backgrounds that camouflage his perpetually-blue-painted body, it at once makes perfect sense and complete nonsense.
Ron Howard executive produces and narrates the proceedings, demonstrating that his ideal format is and always was the boob tube while providing a healthy dose of post-modernism bolstered by the casting of Henry Winkler (self-referentially replaced by Scott Baio in Season 3) as the Bluth's lawyer. The show, then, is a commentary on terrible television and how we were all raised by it like it was a cathode-tube nanny; it's about popular culture in a larger sense (and ironically the series missteps by bringing in Ben Stiller and Martin Short to sketch one-dimensional caricatures at odds with the deceptively-complex Bluths), thus at its best, it's about the universal embarrassment we have with our family dynamics and the difficulties of raising a child. It's pure magic when, in an extended attack on Mrs. Doubtfire and Mary Poppins, the show manages to kill a sacred cow and carve out the mignon, too. (Slightly more subtle is young Maeby's acerbic, Being There version of success as a Hollywood producer.) "Arrested Development" represents the true new golden age of television (along with something like "Deadwood", for instance) in having the depth and foresight to be about characters in situations as opposed to situations moved by stagehands and doorstops. No matter how lissom they might look in scrubs and scrunchies.
"Grey's Anatomy" creator Rhimes reveals everything that needs to be revealed in "Under the Knife: Behind the Scenes of Grey's Anatomy" (11 mins.) when she first calls herself a "medical junkie" before proudly proclaiming that the show is all parts of other shows she most liked to watch. It's the highlights of our junk culture according to someone who would blend invisibly with the panel of "The View", which means that it's loathsome and feckless and extraordinarily popular. (In describing the ethos of "Grey's Anatomy", I'm reminded of Star Jones remarking on "The View" in the aftermath of the tsunami that it was horrible because, essentially, she had been in one of the devastated areas on vacation just weeks earlier.) The rest of the documentary is the typical hyperbolic circle-ass-kiss. If I hear Rhimes described as "brilliant" one more time, my head will come apart at the sutures--and no matter how much executive producer Peter Horton proclaims the characters folks we'd like to hang out with, proclaiming don't make it so. "Anatomy of a Pilot" (12 mins.) joins the doc on the second disc of this two-disc, swing-tray/slip-covered package as another redundant extra, presenting deleted scenes from the pilot with optional commentary from Horton and Rhimes that's self-serving and finally dreadful. "The pilot is a little movie" would trigger my gag reflex except that, having recently seen Failure to Launch, I can't say they're entirely wrong. It evokes the feeling one gets as one listens to a bad poet trying to explain her bad poetry in the ineloquent way of ineloquent people trying to convince you to like something awful.
"Dissecting Grey's Anatomy: Unaired Scenes" is the pay-off to the cover art's boast of 19 of these little gems, each of which runs a minute or so in length and tends to ramp up the exploitation/boredom factor of the episodes from which they were elided. Like the scene where a rapist's actions are described as "jumping up and down on her" and another where Meredith talks to her mother while Ma Grey (Kate Burton), in her demented state, thinks she's performing surgery. I still wonder how someone falls while carrying a nail gun and ends up with nails vertically down the crown of his head--it's not something that's answered within these scenes, however, and to tell you the truth, I only ask the question because I'm a smartass. What I really don't get, now that you mention it, is why it's ever remotely credible that Oh's irredeemable character is shocked by something the crass Alex says.
The "Alternate Main Title Sequence" (1 min.) looks like something Saul Bass might have designed for a terrible sex-and-surgery television show, and an "Avant Garde Trailer" (2 mins.) is only such because, I guess, it's in black-and-white with French title cards. Ignorant. Self-satisfied. And par for the course. Back to the first disc, you can watch the episode "A Hard Day's Night" with commentaries from Rhimes/Horton or, alternately, Heigl, Oh, and Knight, a decision akin to choosing between kissing Oh and having Oh kiss you. Oh is a latecomer to the latter track, with much of the time given over until her arrival to shooting locations for some reason. Giggling and kvetching and so on and so forth, but at least it's better than the deadening self-congratulation of Rhimes/Horton. Oh jumps on at the twenty-four minute mark, by the way, just so you know when to turn the fucking thing off. Click on the TV-on-DVD menu for a trailer reel for "Lost", "Desperate Housewives", "Scrubs", "Alias", "Home Improvement", "The Golden Girls", and so on. "Grey's Anatomy" is offered in consistently bright 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with unexceptional DD 5.1 audio.
The same video specs are afforded "Arrested Development", though the episodes are in (perfectly serviceable) Dolby 2.0 Surround. The three platters are housed in thinpaks that slide into a larger box, which itself slides into a plastic slipcover. Disc 1 includes a commentary for the Charles Schultz shrine "Good Grief!" by creator Mitchell Hurwitz and actors Arnett, Cera, Cross, Hale, Shawkat, and Walter that sparkles with wit and bonhomie throughout. Not in character, but in revealing how closely the sense of humour of the series hews to the sense of humour of the cast and crew. "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (4 mins.) are uneven, as is the nature of such things, but if you're a junkie, any extra portion is cause for celebration. I like the one where Buster eats a beef bullion cube, proclaiming that it "smells like mother's kisses." "Season One in Three Minutes" (3 mins.) is what it sounds like: a trailer reel Fox ran to (unsuccessfully) ramp up interest in the second season. Disc 2 features a similarly lively commentary for "Ready, Aim, Marry Me!" plus more deleted scenes (9 mins.), while Disc 3 does the honours with regards to the season finale, "The Righteous Brothers." This time around the trim bin clocks in at approximately fifteen minutes. I could be getting sentimental, but this last batch of elisions strikes me as particularly uproarious; a hair-cutting joke had me on the floor. A "Blooper Reel" (9 mins.) is strangely edited and only really funny as a satire of the making-of fluff that pads most DVDs nowadays. Come to think of it, I'm guessing that was precisely their intention. Originally published: March 26, 2006.