TV drama is ascendant right now and Grey’s Anatomy is at the top of the heap. It’s worth taking a look at how this show works to get a clue about writing for a drama show and maybe even creating one of your own.
Grey’s Anatomy is the best show about high school to come along in a while. The interns are the freshmen, “the Nazi” is a junior, Burke and McDreamy are seniors, and the Chief Surgeon is the principal. The fact that this is high school in a hospital only affects what the characters do for their class projects. Think bio class with human guinea pigs.
Besides being brilliant, this high concept premise for a TV show indicates that the show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, understood the first rule about TV: it’s about a community of opponents. Sure we bring in guest characters every week. But the audience tunes in so it can live for a moment in this community, in this extended family. We watch the family members fight but we love them anyway and know that they love each other. They just have a hard time living together under the same roof (just like us).
High school has all the highs and lows of living in a community, but taken to the nth degree. As Charles Dickens, a notorious nerd, once remarked about his own high school, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” (He was also the first to write that line in the school yearbook.) By pushing high school into the adult world of the hospital, Rhimes lets the viewer relive that heightened state, at its best and its worst, without limiting the audience to actual high school students.
There are many elements that go into a well-constructed show. Let’s look at one of the more important ones, setting up the oppositions.
One reason Grey’s Anatomy is so popular is that it has very clear oppositions among the ongoing characters, and it has a lot of them. The first set of oppositions is between the “freshmen,” the interns. There are three women and two men, and each is very different from the others. In fact they are so schematically different they border on cliché. But then high school is famous for the various groups with the simplistic labels. The two guys here aren’t just two young doctors. One is the narcissistic ladies man who wants to be a plastic surgeon, while the other is such a pathetic hang-dog (he even looks like a St. Bernard) I keep waiting for the writers to hang a keg of whiskey around his neck. The women are just as extreme. That can make for some ludicrous scenes on occasion. But the important point is that in TV your characters have to begin recognizably different. You’ve got plenty of time to add texture to these people as the seasons progress. What you don’t have is time to identify how your main characters oppose each other in fundamental ways.
Having five unique interns would be enough for most shows. But Grey’s adds a second set of oppositions between the interns and the doctors. This is an opposition based on experience, on learning the craft of medicine. And that focuses primarily on how the doctors and the interns deal with their patients in life-and-death situations. The nice touch here is that while the doctors know best how to operate and deal with the patients, in love they are just as dumb as the freshmen. The basic concept here is that when love comes to town we are all in high school for the rest of our lives.
Which leads to the third set of oppositions. These doctors are involved in all kinds of twisted opposition in their love lives. They are led by the nominal main character of the show, Meredith, who is a revolutionary character for TV. Meredith is the first girl-next-door prom princess who loves sex (ie, she’s a slut) and isn’t ashamed of it. But it does cause her all sorts of complications, which the audience loves to watch. Meredith looks and sounds like a high school girl, and she’s in over her head with the cutest senior in school. Who can resist that?
Using love as a major opposition is a two-edged sword on a TV show. It generates intense passion, which is great for drama and comedy. But it also forces the writers to constantly rip characters apart and put them into new relationships. The sense of farce and soap opera has already begun to take over the storylines.
Still this is a beautifully constructed TV show for the long haul. If you would like to write TV drama, or even create your own show, take a look at the TV Drama Class and the TV Drama Blockbuster add-on, where you can find out all the structural elements that make a hit.