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What is it About ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ That’s Allowed it to Last So Much Longer than Any of Shonda Rhimes’ Other Shows?

Grey’s Anatomy has broken many records in its fifteen years of being on the air – not only is it ABC’s longest-running scripted primetime drama, but it’s also the longest-running American medical drama (just skirting past ER). The show has seen three U.S. presidencies (including Obama’s double term), and for many of us, has been there for the majority of our childhood. I struggle to remember what life was like before my Thursday night plans were made. 

It’s no mystery that everything Shonda Rhimes touches turns to gold. Not only has she created five primetime hit series, but her work has earned her a Golden Globe and three Emmys (not to mention all the awards her cast and crew have won for their roles in the Shondaland universe). Even still, all of her other series have fallen victim to the circle of television life – Private Practice and How to Get Away With Murder ended after six seasons, while Scandal ended after seven, typical runtimes of primetime dramas. But Grey’s Anatomy’s story hasn’t been the same. Instead of hitting the wall that most all series face, where the plot and its characters run their course, Grey’s Anatomy continues to run strong as ABC’s number one program, even after sixteen seasons on the air. What is it about the series that’s granted it immunity to the test of time? 

It was the first of its kind

Grey’s Anatomy has done a lot of things that TV hadn’t done before. Perhaps most notable is the way Shonda Rhimes holds colorblind castings for roles, writing roles without predetermined ethnicities – or even last names! The product was a truly diverse ensemble cast; for the first time, viewers of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds were seeing people that looked like them as main characters on television. The series has truly broken the barrier of typecasting, and instead created space for actors to occupy roles without the precedent of stereotypes. 

Not only has it built a racially diverse cast, but it’s also made a point to portray LGBTQ+ individuals and relationships through characters like Callie, Arizona, Casey, Nico and Levi. Instead of the hetero, whitewashed version of reality that American primetime television has classically portrayed in the past, Grey’s makes a point to portray intersectional, real-life people. By being the first series of its kind, it’s nabbed the hearts of its viewers, and keeps them coming back. 



Bailey and Schmitt are here to help on tomorrow’s #Station19 season finale.

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And there’s always something new 

In comparison to other Shondaland series, Grey’s may have been able to reign supreme thanks to its backdrop. Being set in a hospital allows for a large cast, with an easy coming and going of characters. Writers are able to rely on the fact that it’s common for surgical residents to move to different hospitals for new opportunities. They’re able to throw in young interns to make up for the empty space, each with their own set of traumas to unpack, backstories to explore and romances to forge. The backdrop of a hospital prevents storylines from getting stale, and character development from hitting a wall. If someone’s storyline runs out, or they choose to leave the show for contractual reasons, you can always send them to do a fellowship in another country (or, in typical Shonda-fashion, kill them off in a violent and unexpected death). 

The fact that the medical world is constantly making new advancements and discoveries has also done extraordinary work for the show’s longevity. In other TV series, the storyline often runs out because the initial catching point for viewers is exhausted (for example, in Friends, all the New York twenty-somethings married off and grew up, while in Sex and the City, the queen of NYC singledom, Carrie Bradshaw, finally rode off into the sunset with Big). However, in the medical world, there’ll always be another Jane Doe rolling in on a gurney with some type of never-before-seen illness that the staff of Grey Sloan Memorial must cure. Whenever my Dad catches me watching a new episode of Grey’s, he always shakes his head, dumbfounded that it’s still on, and asks, “Haven’t they run out of medical mysteries to solve yet?”

With medical professionals advising the writers of the show, they can guarantee they’ve always got fresh material to reference. 

But it can’t last forever

Although Grey’s Anatomy has been on the air longer than most of us can remember, it will have to end eventually. Grey’s stans across the board have contemplated what the true source of the show’s demise will be, and from most of my Twitter perusing for the sake of this article (and my own experiences as a longtime Grey’s stan), the consensus is that the show will end when it’s titular character, Meredith Grey, takes her bow. After all, what would Grey’s be without Dr. Grey herself? Her development is another reason I believe viewers have hung on this long. With as many near-death experiences as that woman has seen, it feels as though we’re all collectively holding our breath, wondering if the next season will be the final nail in her coffin. But with the role earning Ellen Pompeo twenty million a year (the highest salary of any actress on TV right now), I highly doubt she’d welcome the grasp of death anytime soon. 

Even still, we all wonder when the day will come that Meredith has her own ride off into the sunset. In a 2018 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Pompeo said of her future on Grey’s, “I’m really excited to do some new things, it’s about time that I mix it up and I’m really excited about my producing career, and I’m definitely looking for a change. I’m feeling like we have told the majority of the stories that we can tell.” 

Does this mean that the series is ending after Season 17? Or, at least, facing another original cast member making their exit? Sure, there is a wonderful ensemble cast of characters that breathe life into the series as it is, but Meredith Grey is certainly its heartbeat. All we can do now is appreciate the time we have left with her and the rest of the Grey Sloan Memorial gang. After all, all good things do come to an end. 

However, if at least some of the OG cast doesn’t make a guest appearance in the finale, I will show up to the ABC studios soundstage, pitchfork in hand. 


Olivia is a Creative Writing major at Rhodes College. She is a twice published novelist, and has had work featured in Fresh U, GrrlPunch Magazine, and The Bridge Street Paper (Memphis, TN).