Grey’s Anatomy is the most popular fictional show on television. So it’s not surprising that it’s showing signs of too much success. Grey’s is a very well constructed show. But it is at heart a soap, and one of the sure signs of soap fatigue is unbelievable hook-ups among the characters. George and Izzy? I don’t think so. It’s as ridiculous as George and Meredith, easily the low point of the entire series.
Izzy, the big-hearted beauty, is now officially the character on Grey’s with the worst taste in men. Before falling for nice-but-neutered George, Izzy went head-over-heals for the doomed Denny. Apparently interpreting his half-open eyes and Southern drawl as sexy charm, Izzy failed to realize that the guy was just half-asleep and too tired to shave (heart problem and all). At the same time, the writers of the show seem out to prove that nice guys actually finish first. Besides being married to Callie (another high point of believability), George has bedded two of the three hottest women on the show. It seems Addison is leaving just in time, or she too would surely fall for George’s amazing anti-macho charms.
Which leads me to the other sign of too much success for a TV show, the spinoff. Grey’s spinoff, called Private Practice, has Addison heading down to LA to work in a private clinic. This new spinoff is worth a closer look, because it shows some common mistakes in creating spinoffs as well as why Grey’s has a superior construction.
Addison had one of the best introductions of a show character in many years. The Catherine Deneuve look-alike, in her Cruella de Vil best, marched up to Meredith and Derrick and said to Meredith, “And you must be the woman who’s been sleeping with my husband.” Actress Kate Walsh delivered the line perfectly, and the character was immediately established as the most compelling on the show.
So I understand that Grey’s creator and boss, Shonda Rhimes, would want to try to spin off an entirely new show based on Addison. Easier said than done. Most spinoffs fail miserably.Private Practice has a better chance of success than most, but it too makes some mistakes that will surely hold it back.
The first mistake the new show makes has to do with the all-important arena. The arena is far more crucial in TV than in film, because this is the place the audience visits every week for many years. Much of the success of Grey’s comes from the big hospital arena, where light comedy can be played in contrast to life-and-death drama. By putting Private Practice in the laid back arena of an LA clinic, Rhimes has removed the pressure cooker effect from the show and relied almost totally on the often-silly relationship comedy.
Another problem with Private Practice, at least in the introductory show, is that none of the drama is emotionally earned. To be fair, Grey’s itself sometimes suffers from this. A conflict scene will go way over the top and so come across as emotionally dishonest. In the spinoff this flaw is rampant. It’s certainly understandable. It’s caused by trying to start the new show at full speed, 100 mph. But in the new show, unlike Grey’s, the audience doesn’t know any of these people yet. So the fake conflict, typically caused by an unmotivated crisis, stands out.
The biggest difficulty Private Practice has is a structural one: the oppositions among the lead characters don’t work. And that is the most serious problem a show can have. Maybe the oppositions will improve in time. But for now there is no reason for any of these characters to be in fundamental conflict with each other.
In the Great Screenwriting Class and TV Drama Class, I refer to this structural element as the “character web.” The character web must be constructed in a TV drama so that all the characters simultaneously form a strong community and also have deep-seated oppositions among them that will never be settled. This is the greatest strength of Grey’s Anatomy. Every kind of permutation of opposition and competition is played out within a strong, family-like community. Within that structural dynamic, Addison has been the queen bee, haughty, refined, with the sexuality of a woman, in contrast to the sweet, though sometimes naughty, little girl of Meredith. Within that web, the occasional peeks into Addison’s softer side come as welcome shocks against her severe and challenging public persona.
But notice that when Addison is taken out of the web of Grey’s and placed in the sillier, light-comedy web of Private Practice,Addison’s queen bee persona disappears entirely and she is reduced to the confused, one-note little girl persona of Meredith. The resonance within the character is gone, and the resonance among the characters isn’t there in the first place.
There’s a related problem in Private Practice having to do with a clash of two different casting strategies. For the most part, Grey’s was cast with unknowns who are their characters. This show has excellent actors across the board, but one of the big reasons they come across as so damn good is that we’ve never seen them before. They’re not acting; they’re just being themselves.
But then Grey’s became a huge hit. So the spinoff is cast with established and very familiar TV actors. When Addison takes her vacation to LA, it feels like she’s taken a wrong turn into Pleasantville. “Look, Addison is talking to Amy Brenneman. And there’s Taye Diggs from Ally McBeal. And Tim Daly is stopping by from Wings.” Bottom line, I don’t want to see Addison hanging out with a bunch of TV stars in LA. She’s too good for that.