The Fall of 2004 marked a major breakthrough for the struggling American Broadcasting Company. Lost and Desperate Housewives quickly established themselves as the two most talked about new shows of the year; Extreme Makeover: Home Edition enjoyed huge ratings when expanded to a full season; and spinning off The Practice from the preachy and heavy-handed downer it had become into the lively and energetic Boston Legal proved a success in the eyes of both viewers and critics. Come midseason, however, this near embarrassment of riches had created a scheduling problem. Desperate Housewives, originally slated to be replaced in January by an uninterrupted run of Alias, was now a monster hit and certainly in no position to go away, so the network seized the opportunity to pair its two J.J. Abrams' series together on Wednesday nights, bumping the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise to a new Monday reality block with How'd They Do That? and Supernanny. While all this shuffling was the positive result of unexpected success, it left ABC's midseason replacements out in the cold, including an under-the-radar medical drama named Grey's Anatomy.
The following March, having now lost its slated post-Monday Night Football slot for good, the loveable new series about surgical interns was given a small window to shine on Sunday nights while Boston Legal took a few weeks off for vacation. As it turns out, that was all it needed. In a matter of weeks, Grey's Anatomy's fresh take on the medical drama had wrestled the coveted primetime spot from its predecessor and proved a perfect demographic match for its lead-in Desperate Housewives; and now, less than a year later, it is one of the most watched shows on television. Riding the wave of its post-Super Bowl airing (an interesting twist of fate), the series that almost lost its chance to find any audience at all outperformed the women of Wisteria Lane for the first time this past Sunday, and in what could not be more perfect promotional timing, Buena Vista Home Entertainment now brings to DVD those initial 9 midseason replacement episodes in Grey's Anatomy: Season One.
Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) is one of many surgical interns preparing to begin their first 48-hour shift at Seattle Grace Hospital. Like most of her colleagues, being a surgeon is not just her career goal but her passion, and the pursuit of this goal will be a long and difficult journey. The Chief of Surgery lays it all out on their first day: "The seven years you spend here as a surgical resident will be the best and worst of your life. You will be pushed to the breaking point. Look around you; say 'hello' to your competition. Eight of you will switch to an easier specialty. Five of you will crack under the pressure. Two of you will be asked to leave." A harsh introduction, but an honest one. While they are in the business of saving lives, the path to the top of the surgical food chain is an incredibly competitive one, and only a few will survive. That reality is one of the underlying themes in this season.
The pilot episode opens quite literally with Grey's anatomy, on Meredith in her own bed after a night with a guy whose name she does not remember. Polite but self-assured, she nicely informs the overnight visitor that she is going to take a shower, and when she returns, he needs to not be there anymore. This one scene immediately sets the stage for what kind of show this is going to be. Meredith is a confident and intelligent woman, but she is not a do-gooder medical hero struting around boldly saving lives. She is a more realistic character, the kind of girl who might take home a one-night-stand on the eve of her biggest career opportunity, one who makes impulsive decisions just like the rest of us.
When she arrives at work, we meet the rest of the dynamic characters with whom she will spend the better part of the next few years. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) is highly competitive, first in her class at Stanford, and not at all shy about expressing confidence in her abilities and a desire to take part in new surgical procedures. George O'Malley (T.R. Knight) is much less outwardly confident, the typical "nice guy" who is a little unsure how to approach women (or his superiors) but who has such an endearing charm that everyone cannot help but love him. Finally, Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) is a gorgeous woman who is more than capable at her job but who constantly struggles to gain respect because of her looks and the fact that she paid for college by working as a part-time model. Together, these four are assigned to the same surgical resident on the first day -- later adding chauvinistic chest-thumping Alex Karev (Justin Chambers) -- and as is the nature of their career choice, they will be attached at the hip for a long time to come.
Part of what makes Grey's Anatomy work, however, is that it does not simply focus on these likable interns and their struggle to find a place within the surgical community. It also shares with us the lives of their bosses, who have their own career goals and who shoulder the burden of training these rookies in one of the most difficult professions imaginable. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), the resident to whom the aforementioned interns are assigned, has been unflatteringly nicknamed "The Nazi" for her fast pace, her strict rules, and her sometimes unflinching lack of emotion. She pushes her interns to the point of exhaustion, not because she enjoys seeing them suffer (well, perhaps a little bit), but because it is necessary to weed out those who cannot measure up to the strain that this lifestyle will put on them. At the same time, though, she is trying to work her way up the surgical ladder herself, to learn more and further her own career, and it is interesting to see this balancing act play out. Wilson's performance in this role is really quite amazing, capturing the strength and resolve of this hard-nosed character as well as the endearing warmth of someone who genuinely wants her interns to be the best they can possibly be.
Also on staff are two attending surgeons, both competing to one day fill the role as Chief of Surgery at Seattle Grace. Preston Burke (Isiah Washington) has been with the hospital for years, the acknowledged top dog on the staff and most likely in line to run the hospital one day. He is confident, borderline arrogant, and more often than not, he has a right to be. His boss (James Pickens, Jr.), however, thinks that perhaps he is too complacent atop the figurative ladder and needs a formidable challenger to be pushed to even greater heights. Enter Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), a hotshot neural surgeon from New York who has been told that if he brings his skills to the West Coast, he stands a good shot at getting the Chief's job. He is a brilliant doctor, handsome and charming, beloved by nurses and patients alike. Oh, and he is the one-night-stand who awoke next to Meredith in the opening scene.
See, while Grey's Anatomy is one part medical drama, and it does a great job handling the competitive struggle in this life-and-death profession, at its heart, it is also a quirky romantic comedy. The relationship woes of these interns, particularly Meredith's with Dr. Shepherd, are as much a part of the show as their surgical education, and it is in this area where the series finds its greatest success. Ellen Pompeo, with her Zellweger-esque mannerisms, is so darn cute and endearing as Meredith that you cannot help but fall in love with her, and her chemistry with Patrick Dempsey is the kind of palpable on-screen magic that casting directors dream about.
As her best friend Christina, Sandra Oh has a completely different chemistry with her love interest, and it is all the more intriguing. Whereas Wilson's performance as Dr. Bailey brings a wonderfully grounded depth to the series, Oh's work helps take it to places we rarely see on television. Christina is an excellent doctor, but she is matter-of-fact, often abrasive, and has no concept of bedside manner. Her struggles with these aspects of her personality and the way she handles some of the show's more dramatic moments are really a treat to see develop, and it is no surprise that she took home statues this year from both the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes.
With countless medical dramas on the air right now and throughout television's past, it is impressive how Grey's Anatomy has found a way to distinguish itself. It is not just the romantic comedy aspects that set it apart from the traditional medical drama, but the way it develops the characters as fallible creatures both inside and outside of the hospital without forcing overly dramatic plots through the patients. These interns have been studying to be doctors for their entire adult lives, and yet they are thrust into a situation where with all their knowledge, they still feel like they don't know what they are doing. Such a circumstance must be at once both exhilarating and terrifying, and the series does a good job capturing the sense of wonder over this great undertaking alongside the realistic fears over the consequences of even the most minor of mistakes. Everything is nicely measured. The drama isn't unnecessarily dramatic, the comedy isn't over-the-top or unrealistic, and the romance isn't ... well, 9 of the 13 staff writers are women, so yeah, the romantic elements are pretty frequent, but it is executed with such charm and wit that it works wonderfully. Behind the scenes, the producers' mantra is "No crying, no hugging, no secret pain." Certainly, there is a little bit of each of these things, something that obviously cannot be avoided in a dramatic series of any merit, but it is used very sparingly, and the phrase provides a good indication of the desire to strike a healthy balance between drama and humor.
Another area that sets Grey's Anatomy apart from other shows is its sense of style, both with its distinct visual palette and its signature use of music (including naming the episodes after popular songs). Unlike many television medical settings where everything is under lit to force dramatic tension, Seattle Grace feels like a real hospital, complete with the bright and sterile colors to which we are all accustomed. The use of blues and pinks in the set design and wardrobe give it a very distinct look that is quite effective. Also surprisingly effective is the use of unconventional modern music against the background of many scenes. Often, distinct musical selections such as these can really distract from the show (e.g. Crossing Jordan), but here it adds yet another layer to the total package that is this quirky but emotionally moving television series.
Finally, I must address the show's thematic narrative structure. Much like Desperate Housewives or Everwood, each episode has a distinct theme (assisted by narration) that helps make it more than just a series of 42-minute segments arranged in order to form a season. I have always appreciated shows that make this effort, weaving episodic themes throughout a diverse cast of characters while still moving forward some larger arc-driven plots, and Grey's Anatomy does a solid job in this pursuit. Not every episodic theme addressed in this first season is gold, and sometimes Meredith's voiceover narrations can get a little wordy and obvious, but on the whole, it is an effective technique for this series.
If there are any complaints to be found within these nine opening episodes, it would be that sometimes the sense of competition between the characters is lost among their obsessions with their personal lives. While these personal struggles are as much a driving force for the series as their professional ones, the show can get a little bogged down with all the relationship woes. The series does an excellent job balancing the drama and the comedy, but every once in a while it stumbles closer to soap opera territory. However, with the chemistry and general likeability of the cast, when it does happen, it is a forgivable offense, because there is almost always something poignant or hilarious waiting around the corner.
On the whole, Grey's Anatomy is that wonderful mix of drama and humor to which so many shows aspire. Without hammering either of them, it finds the natural emotions that are inherent to normal situations. Not every episode has a life or death surgery, and the patients aren't used as gimmicks to tug on our heartstrings. Sometimes the circumstances are mundane, other times heroic, but it is always the characters who drive this show. It is quirky without trying to be Ally McBeal, dramatic without retreading E.R., and hilarious without mimicking Scrubs. It has its own unique style and identity, and that is a large reason for its appeal. Creator Shonda Rhimes has said that she was trying to create a show she would want to watch, with characters who you didn't simply like, but you loved. With the support of some stellar acting performances, she has done just that.
Grey's Anatomy is presented across two discs in an Amaray-style case that has a shelf footprint the size of a traditional single-disc release. In addition to the typical internal snapping mechanism, this space-saving enclosure also has two plastic external clasps that snap flush to the side of the case and provide additional stability to the design. While I have not had one break yet, these clasps do not appear as if they will withstand frequent use. The primary plastic case is accompanied by a thin cardboard slipcover that slides over the enclosure to give the cover design an embossed look and feel. While these slipcovers are easily damaged and often superfluous, in this instance, it largely obscures the awful giant barcode and proofs of purchase on the back of the main case, so it is a welcome addition. The discs themselves are very simple in design with the red show logo against a black background. A promotional insert for the show's distinct soundtrack is included as well as a single double-sided insert that briefly describes the episodes contained in the set. One drawback to the cover design is that the collage of images is taken from multiple sources, so there is a disparity between the sharpness of the promotional photos and the artificial softness of the screencaps from specific episodes. This is clearly the most minor of criticisms, as part of it appears a stylistic choice, but it does look odd to me.
The video is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen with anamorphic enhancement, and it looks very good but shy of great. Putting five episodes on one disc and four episodes plus bonus features on the other keeps the bitrate at about 4.6 MB/s, so there are some small sections in the video that could have more detail, but for the most part everything looks fine. For a series with such bright colors and stark contrasts, there is surprisingly little edge enhancement, but it does crop up now and then, particularly in scenes that take place on the main hospital walkway in front of the large glass windows. The distinct blues and whites of the show's primary palette look good, and as most of the show is shot indoors, there is only a small amount of grain. It is not perfect, but it is a solid video presentation that is a definite improvement over the standard definition broadcasts.
The audio is in 5.1 surround, and there really isn't much to be said about it. As with most television soundtracks, the extra channels are not really explored, but that is less a criticism than a statement of the reality of this style of show. The dialogue is crisp and easy to understand, and the background music weaves in nicely with everything else. In the few cases where there are loud background effects, the dialogue is never drowned out. While nothing special, the audio on this set is perfectly adequate and exactly what one would expect for a dialogue-driven television series of this nature.
The menu organization is simple and effective with a Play All feature for the episodes. There is no scene selection. Running in the background of the primary menus are scenes from the series set against portions of the unique title theme "Cosy in the Rocket" by Psapp. In these sequences, the backgrounds are softened, the color is pushed onto the main characters, and everything is overexposed to create a fun and stylish effect. All together it has a distinct quirky feel that is appropriate for the series.
English captions are included for the hearing impaired and can be accessed from the Setup menu.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
Included on the first disc are two commentaries for the pilot episode, "A Hard Day's Night". The first is with creator/executive producer Shonda Rhimes alongside the episode's director Peter Horton. Rhimes talks about why she wanted to do a medical series of this nature and how she tried to separate it from so many other shows while Horton goes into some depth on the stylistic choices that were made when trying to stage this pilot episode. You really get the feel for how passionate Rhimes is about her writing and how involved she is with every aspect of the series. It is an interesting listen, as there are some good nuggets of information to be heard, but it isn't overly special. The second commentary is with stars T.R. Knight, Katherine Heigl, and Sandra Oh (who shows up only for the second half as she is busy filming during the recording). As is typical with cast commentaries, there isn't a great deal of insight, but it is moderately entertaining to hear these friends and coworkers joke with one another about their experiences on the show. Knight has some fun pointing out continuity flaws in the filming, and Oh makes some smart observations about the direction in which the writers chose to take her character. If you are a big fan of the series, I am sure you will enjoy hearing these portions of audio -- I certainly did -- but they are not essential.
One the second disc are a short behind-the-scenes featurette, quite a few deleted scenes, an alternate main title, and something that defies description. Under the Knife: Behind the Scenes of Grey's Anatomy (11:20) is a short but informative piece that goes into some detail on what they are trying to achieve with the show. While none of the interviews goes into much depth, there is a lot of material here from the writers and producers of the show, which is a nice change of pace from the fluff pieces that just mix together some quotes from the stars. This featurette also discusses Linda Klein's role as the resident medical expert and how they go about trying to create a sense of realism with that aspect of the series. As with many of these things, it is entertaining, and I really with there had been more of it.
Anatomy of a Pilot (11:44) is a frustrating misnomer that implies some analysis of how the pilot episode was created. In actuality, it takes a more literal meaning and is simply a collection of the numerous scenes deleted or altered from the final product. Thankfully, these segments run together in a single piece, so we don't have to select them one at a time. Also included is an audio commentary track for this segment with the aforementioned Shonda Rhimes and Peter Horton. Without much time to talk about each sequence, there isn't a lot of extra information here, just some brief statements of why the scenes were cut. While the two of them at times lament how they wish certain pieces had made the cut, most of these scenes deserved to live on the cutting room floor. It is not that they are bad but that they simply do not fit well with the pace that the pilot ultimately achieved. Rhimes admits that it took her some time to realize that unlike a movie, you don't have to -- nor do you want to -- give the audience all the character background at once, and it is evident from these cut scenes that the initial script bordered on falling into that trap. In addition to the ones from the pilot, there are 5 Deleted Scenes from other episodes as well. None of them is particularly interesting, and disappointingly, there is not a Play All function with them either.
Finally, there are two interesting inclusions that are the kind of material you love to see on a DVD release. First, there is an Alternate Main Title (0:32) that shows a title sequence more akin to the product marketing seen on the soundtrack release and the DVD cover. Personally, I think they made a good choice going even more offbeat with the sequence they used, but this one would have worked too. Last, but certainly not least, is something I don't exactly know how to describe. Named Avant-Garde Trailer (2:08), this is a wonderfully quirky, grainy, black-and-white, artsy, pseudo-promotional piece that shows various sequences from the first season against clever, and sometimes hilarious, clichéd French subtitles. Certainly the most creative of the bonus features, this "trailer" embodies so much of the style and humor of this wonderful series, and I loved every second of it.
In a season that saw breakout ABC hits like Lost and Desperate Housewives, it is hard to imagine that they also had a show as strong as Grey's Anatomy sitting on the shelf waiting for a chance to flourish. Creatively blending comedy and drama, humor and pain, the story of the surgical staff at Seattle Grace Hospital is that rare series that can have you laughing out loud and then wiping tears from your face moments later. The diverse cast of characters provides a wealth of interesting story possibilities, and the patients that visit them neither dominate the plot nor fade into the background. Emotionally moving, bitingly sarcastic, and achingly addictive, Grey's Anatomy is one of the most entertaining shows on the air right now, and despite the somewhat average slate of bonus features, the price point at which this is selling makes is easy for me to mark it Highly Recommended.