I like a lot of tv shows. I like them from the academic perspective of literature, but I also like them simply as distraction and entertainment. Like most of the audience, I become invested in the characters for their own sakes, and as such I am pleased or upset on their behalf when Things Happen.
Shonda Rhimes is a master of her craft. The creation of Grey’s Anatomy and its spin-off Private Practice prove as much. While I got onto that particular bandwagon rather late (Grey’s is on season 8, and I started watching it about a year ago), I found the world Rhimes created intoxicating and addictive. I admit, both shows are more than a little soapy, but they’re well-written with compelling characters. One thing that I like about Rhimes and her fellow writers is the way they handle ensemble shows. The initial central characters of both series, Meredith Grey and Addison Montgomery, continue to be at the center of their respective shows, but they can’t truly be described as “the main character.” Rhimes and her fellows craft each episode and each season carefully to ensure that each character has a role to play. While obviously each episode can’t feature a story for every character, nobody is peripheral. In a recent episode, one of the stories continued the aftermath of Henry’s death during surgery. Whenever Teddy operated, she paged Cristina and compelled her to recount the events of Henry’s last operation over and over. To the audience it was clear that while it might seem like torture to everyone around, the repeated clinical details were necessary for Teddy to understand and process her husband’s death on the operating table. The reason I’m bringing this up is the presence and role of April Kepner, who was not a main character in this episode. However, she played an important role as the assisting surgeon in Teddy’s O.R. who finally couldn’t take the repeated story and broke down in surgery, yelling at Teddy that her husband is dead and to stop making Cristina tell it.
The producers and writers of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice have also done relatively well with the overlapping universe created by the parent show running concurrently with the spinoff. When Callie was in the car accident and they had to decide what to do about her baby, Seattle Grace called in Addison as the best neonatal surgeon they could think of, and when the doctors of Private Practice discover that Addison’s brother Archer has a brain tumor, they take it to Derek Shepherd at Seattle Grace.
All that being said, I’m pretty angry with the puppetmasters of that world right now. At the end of season six and start of season seven of Grey’s, the doctors deal with a shooting rampage inside the hospital and its aftermath. Those episodes are heartbreaking to watch, from the brutally unnecessary deaths of Drs. Reed and Percy to the agonizing performance of Sandra Oh as surgeon Cristina Yang suffering from PTSD. I was moved when, a few episodes into season seven, Derek’s headstrong sister Amelia showed up at Seattle Grace, bringing along what she thought would cheer her brother: a man with a brain tumor. There are a few jokes about twisted neurosurgeon humor, and Derek is initially pretty harsh, but eventually they have a touching conversation about Amelia’s desire to make sure that Derek is alive and coping. They talk a little about the death of their father, shot in a convenience store robbery many years earlier, and they reach a greater understanding of each other through shared experience and emotional connection. It’s lovely and moving and I was very pleased to see that Rhimes & Co. made the effort to show that Derek’s family is there for him. I was a little surprised to see that there was no mention of Addison (ex-wife), Derek’s mother, his other siblings, Lexie and Meredith’s father, or even a verbal reference to someone like Izzie, who would presumably have seen something about the shooting on the news. I told myself that the events starting season 7 were at least a month, if not more, after the shooting, and so I had to make room for gaps in the timeline.
But then came this season’s story arc for Amelia on Private Practice. We’ve known for a while that Amelia has a history of drug problems and that she is impulsive, stubborn, and carrying a heavy load of pain. So it was sad, but not surprising, when she hit a tipping point when her friend committed suicide rather than die slowly from Huntington’s. Amelia went on a bender that was frankly scary – twelve days without any kind of contact with her friends or family, during which time she met a guy named Ryan. When she finally showed up to the practice and the other doctors confronted her in an intervention, she turned hostile and spewed hateful diatribes at each in turn, hitting each one where it hurt most. Then she left with Ryan. The episode ended with her in a hotel with Ryan, deciding they would get high one last time before getting sober together and getting married. She then woke up in the morning to find that Ryan had died of an overdose in the bed next to her. That was the point at which she called Addison and voluntarily went to rehab.
The reason I’m upset: in all of this deep trauma for Amelia, where the hell is Derek? He is her only brother. She came to do what she could for him when he was shot. She is experiencing something at the same level of trauma as being in the back of the store when her father was shot. Shonda Rhimes needs to address this – while Derek and Amelia have a rocky relationship at the best of times (he thinks she’s an irresponsible hothead, she thinks he’s an overbearing knowitall, and frankly both have a point), they are family. If it’s one thing that’s been proven again and again in both Grey’s and Private Practice, it’s the important of the support structure, including the family we can’t choose and the family we can. They get us through the things that try to break us, and to exist without them, or with an incomplete structure, is to live with continual pain. The longer it lasts, the worse the damage.
Shonda Rhimes, why has Derek Shepherd not been present to help and support his little sister?