— “This place really sucks these days. You should be happy you don’t work here anymore,” Alex Karev said on “Grey’s Anatomy” last season.
Let’s hope he’s wrong about Seattle Grace when the show returns Thursday night.
The near obliteration of the hospital staff in the sixth season finale was, for this once edgy show, a desperately needed reset button. To start over, it created a hit man who was ruthless in his executions. His actions cleared out the clutter and signaled a new direction out of the season’s weighty limbo.
You know what we’re talking about.
The easy banter that used to flow among the interns, residents and attendings was long ago replaced by relentless sniping, feuds and the ever-present tension of the Izzie yo-yo (reflecting the long goodbye of Katherine Heigl). Gone were the sharp, intense intersections among characters that resonated with viewers, replaced by recycled story lines involving rebound sex, tepid triangles and family tensions.
But there was so much “ER”-style carnage in the finale, it knocked the wind out of viewers — in a good way — and offered hope for a return to the quality the show exhibited in its earlier seasons.
Recovering from stumbles
What “Grey’s” has always done well is balance some of the more implausible soap-opera elements with poignant life-and-death situations. At the core of that balance: excellent writing.
Creator Shonda Rhimes has offered moment after moment of scenes that stay in our psyche, that make us repeatedly rewind for the laugh, that make us care about the characters.
But high expectations yield high disappointment, as last season proved before the blood bath.
The second half of the season improved upon the pre-holidays first half, which squandered the dramatic momentum from George’s death and Izzie’s cancer with the awkward infusion of the Mercy Westers (with the exception of pretty boy Avery).
The stumbles kept the flow of the season unpredictable at best. Some missteps included Cristina choosing Teddy over Owen, Mark’s annoying long-lost daughter and Derek handling mundane administrative tasks, to name a few.
Not to say there weren’t some things that redeemed the show. Izzie’s departure may well have been one of the best things to happen, along with Mark and Callie’s friendship and the evolution of Gary Clark into a killer.
Growing up on 'Grey's'
But this season, a couple things indicate the show is back on track. (Stop here if you want to avoid spoilers.)
It doesn’t look like the writers are going to sweep the shooting under the table, but will move the characters forward like adults. Rhimes has hinted as much.
“Our characters are growing up on ‘Grey’s.’ They’re really adults now and that’s been a real challenge, in how to let them be grownups and figure out what that means for them,” she told TV Guide.
The premiere episode, entitled “With You I’m Born Again,” will be told using the flashing-back-in-time method, with events from just after the shootings juxtaposed with group therapy sessions two months after the most traumatic event to occur at Seattle Grace.
The shooting put everything in perspective, resetting the convoluted cast machinations, petty rivalries and glacial pace with a brutal overhaul. It was, as Lexie points out during a group therapy session, mass murder.
Lexie never quite got out of big sis Meredith's shadow, but late last season, she had flashes of maturity. She stood up for herself, asserting an individual identity. She showed extraordinary courage in facing Gary Clark.
But it cost her. In Thursday’s premiere, Mark questions the new trauma counselor’s decision to reinstate Lexie, because just the week before, she needed a psych stay. But she gets the green light to go back to work. Hopefully, she'll be able to move past her neuroses that make her pesky and leave April Kepner the only annoying one in scrubs.
Dark and twisty
While Derek relinquishes his chief duties back to, well ... the Chief, it doesn’t mean he’s quitting. This could be a great thing for the hard-to-be-humble neurosurgeon. He’s admitting this is not his forte and that something else matters more than his ambition. It means getting back to what he’s good at, and spending time with the most important person in his life — his wife.
He still doesn’t know about Meredith’s pregnancy — or her miscarriage — when the season kicks off. Expect some serious shock waves when they begin to deal with the personal tragedy on the Sept. 30 episode.
“The theme for the entire season of 'Grey’s' this year is rebirth, so extrapolate from there,” Rhimes told TV Guide.
While this could be an obvious hint at Meredith and Derek getting a second chance to have a baby, it could also be a pivotal moment in their relationship, which has been so up and down, at times ecstatic, annoying and immature on both their parts, until they finally said their vows and tied the knot. Via Post-it. But neither has really dealt with a shared loss. She’s lost her mother and George. He lost his father and Addison, and almost lost Meredith twice.
Happily ever after?
With all these growing pains, there is some joy, but it's a little bit of a yawner. Cristina finally makes it down the aisle, this time with Owen. Besides Meredith and Derek — and they have a hard road ahead of them — we need another happy-ish couple on this show. But are Cristina and Owen it?
We were never crazy about the pairing, and after seeing him with Teddy, maybe it’s a chemistry thing. But Owen does represent a break from Cristina’s father figure fixation. He needs her help to heal. And she gives him a reason to want to live a life that isn’t just about fighting and nightmares.
“Everybody is sort of coming out of this very dark place,” Rhimes told EW.com's Michael Ausiello of the new season.
Let’s hope “Grey’s” becomes a sanctuary for viewers again.