After more than 15 years on our screens—a longer run than any other medical drama in history—Grey’s Anatomy might be laying the groundwork for its final curtain call.
Though to be fair, we’ve heard that one before.
Nearly every season there seems to be speculation over how long the drama will continue to run. Ellen Pompeo, who stars as Meredith Grey, and creator Shonda Rhimes have historically agreed that when Pompeo is ready to exit, the show will reach its conclusion. The decision, in essence, is in her hands. So around the premiere date each year, all eyes expectantly fall on the actress.
“We don’t know when the show is really ending yet. But the truth is, this year could be it,” Pompeo told Variety of the show’s upcoming 17th season, which is premiering Nov. 12.
“This is the last year of my contract right now. I don’t know that this is the last year? But it could very well could be,” she says.
Then knowing what a sensational statement she just dropped, immediately followed it up with, “There’s your sound bite! There’s your clickbait! ABC’s on the phone!”
It’s Been a Long Run
In all seriousness, after a decade and a half, the show still brings in consistent viewership. It ranks as the No. 1 drama among 18- to 34-year-olds and No. 2 among adults 18 to 49. Teens who were born during the first season have binged the series on streaming services and now watch it with their parents. To say it’s a cultural phenomenon is an understatement.
But no show wants to overstay its welcome. Grey’s is still hot now, but in order to end on top, you’ve got to make the final call at some point.
Despite its popularity, the series has had uneven seasons, and its set was not without controversy. Especially in the early years.
The writers had to fight ABC to flesh out the characters in the way they wanted. Off-screen drama surrounding original cast members Katherine Heigl, T.R. Knight, and Isaiah Washington made the workplace volatile. And long work hours made everyone on set miserable.
“Nobody should be working 16 hours a day, 10 months a year — nobody,” Pompeo says. “You want to get rid of a lot of bad behavior? Let people go home and sleep.”
Grey’s turned a major corner after season 12—and the exit of Patrick Dempsey’s Derek Shepherd—when Debbie Allen came on as director and executive producer. (She would later be cast as Catherine Avery as well.) Allen implemented far more humane working hours, and focused on increasing diversity in the writing and directing staff.
And now, according to Pompeo, the set is a much more joyful place to work. Something she takes into consideration when thinking of the future of the series.
“I don’t take the decision lightly. We employ a lot of people, and we have a huge platform. And I’m very grateful for it,” she says. “I’m just weighing out creatively what can we do.”
“Grey’s” in the Time of COVID
Grey’s Anatomy has found itself in a bit of a sweet spot in our current climate. In a time when COVID has halted and derailed television productions, they’ve been able to leverage the time their on-screen characters—healthcare workers and patients—are wearing protective equipment like masks and face shields. The cast and crew are also tested three times a week.
They’ve also been given the opportunity to produce stories about front-line workers in the midst of the pandemic, and to shed a light on how the medical industry has been irreparably changed in the face of it.
“I’m really, really, really excited about this season,” Pompeo says. “It’s probably going to be one of our best seasons ever. And I know that sounds nuts to say, but it’s really true.”
But They’re Not Done Quite Yet
While Pompeo may be weighing her options for the future, showrunner Krista Vernoff and star/director Chandra Wilson feel there’s a lot more to explore. And they’re in it for the long haul.
“We’ve blown past so many potential endings to Grey’s Anatomy that I always assume it can go on forever,” Vernoff says.
“In my mind, Bailey is there until the doors close, until the hospital burns down, until the last thing happens on Grey’s Anatomy,” Wilson says of her character, Dr. Miranda Bailey. “That is her entire arc.”
One thing is for certain, Grey’s isn’t done trying to outdo itself. The show has explored every type of natural disaster and tragedy. It’s orchestrated countless dramatic character exits (read: deaths). And its title character alone has removed a live bomb from a patient’s body, survived a plane crash, been widowed, nearly beaten to death, and once briefly died in a ferry accident.
Yet after all of that, they’re still promising a shocker of an opener.
“I’ll say the pilot episode to this season — girl, hold on,” Pompeo says. “What nobody thinks we can continue to do, we have done. Hold on. That’s all we’re going to say about that!”