Literature is wonderful even when it does not nearly qualify as literature, at least according to the standards of most literary critics and most viewers, playgoers, or readers. But even then it can be gripping and so one has to turn to that great scientist of criticism, Aristotle, putting aside judgment so as to establish what is going on with this particular piece of junk that goes through the moves of being a narrative and so has to be understood as such, according to the elements of narrative first so elegantly laid out by Aristotle, who is the first and best of the Formalist critics, meaning by that the one who describes the mechanics through which a piece of literature or potential piece of literature creates its effects. I want to use as a case study a television series, “Grey's Anatomy”, which I have been binge watching over the past three days. I have clocked over fifty episodes, which means over 33 hours of viewing, which is enough time in which to read half a dozen major Shakespearean plays, though those are so taxing that one would have to slow down rather than switch to the next episode of an evening soap opera as quickly as the prior one ends. You have to concentrate more to get Shakespeare’s plot much less the complexity of the emotions he is depicting. I have gone through the binge process with other series. I watched what may well be the best television series ever, “The West Wing”, episode by episode, which means less than an hour a week, when it first came out, and then, years later, when discs became available, i watched the whole thing through, all six years of it, and thought it better than ever, its last season a spectacular prediction of a President who was a man of color running against a McCain type. But “Grey’s Anatomy” doesn’t come even close to that standard, and so I have to inquire carefully about what makes it gripping by coming up with Aristotle-like categories.
First of all, the topics and settings for “Grey’s Anatomy” are television conventional. The program has to do with love affairs between the staff and sometimes with the patients at a hospital. The series goes through the usual variations: authority versus rebellion, as when interns go against the instructions of residents; lust versus responsibility, as when people have affairs in which they seduce the spouse or boyfriend of a friend; religion versus secularism, as when an Amish couple decides whether to go back to their home and a Jewish patient decides whether to violate what she thinks of as her Jewish principles to save her life. There is always a way out (the Jewish patient found a bovine rather than a pig implant for her heart) or else people do as they do in melodramas, which is groan over the impossible choices fate has placed before them. The program can always move on to more affairs, more medical disasters or tough cases, more heartbreak because there are no end of these at a teaching hospital where everyone is so articulate at explaining what troubles them or where, at the least, their friends can do the job if a viewer is so dull as not to have picked it up by his or her self. So the topics and settings are an endless resource because there is always the personal to serve as the background for the existential drama of saving lives, the adrenaline of the medical cases sometimes switching places with the bittersweet feelings of the drama of personal relations going either well or awry.
Moreover, the overall themes of those so many episodes are the stock ones of doctor soap operas. Doctors have to put work against family, are fiercely egotistical and competitive, and decide whether lust is more important than responsibility or loyalty to friends and spouses. It is true that in the case of “Grey’s Anatomy”, people have particularly loose morals, so much so that the show parodies itself by having comic moments in which one character calls another a male whore or an adulterous slut, as if that would relieve the pressure of that being what they are, because you want to keep these people likeable and therefore minimally respectable, people prisoners of what their hearts rather than what their minds want.
Another theme that threads through the episodes is that of feminism, though that is not mentioned overtly until the third year of the series when a female surgeon mentions to a black chief of surgery that leaving her out of a camping trip is the equivalent of the bad old days when black associates were not invited along to the law firm’s country club weekends, “Grey’s Anatomy” clearly not referring to the really bad old days of a generation before when there were no black associates or only token ones at major law firms. Indeed, “Grey’s Anatomy” is clearly post racial. Nobody comments on interracial love affairs and nobody is concerned about black doctors giving orders to white interns and residents. Everybody is emotionally equal, subject to the same sexual urges and other emotions, such as jealousy and ambition. It is also feminist because the series is told from the point of view of the women characters, those most fully realized, while the men occasionally reveal their human side but are largely stick figures, sexual magnets, who tend to be more weak than their female counterparts. It is hard to find a really good man while men have so many really decent women to choose from.
The plot lines of the series are weak in that it is never clear why two people don’t stick together rather than break up and, indeed, the ambivalence people have about relationships simply seems like a plot device to keep the series going rather than something earned by the character, and that is what makes the series not rise above being gunk literature. There are only some of the elements that would be required to have the world of the series qualify as an alternative universe, which is what we require of all those narratives that qualify as being literature. Meredith Grey, the eponymous heroine, can’t commit to her boyfriend, and the reasons for that, her feeling of abandonment by men, are endlessly discussed, though they don’t seem very compelling. What is strong are the emotions the characters feel, whether or not they are properly motivated to do so. Jealousy, rage, guilt, lust, are all compellingly presented so that every viewer can get a sense of what it is like to feel those things or to recall feeling them, and that is certainly tribute enough for the series. Credit for that as well as the feminism of the series goes to its creator, Shonda Rhimes, for having chosen actors who are very charming and good looking and so the viewer wants to identify with them when they feel these emotions and perhaps even with the camera people who use shots that are short of middle distance to give you a sense of how attractive are the people without the need for standard closeups.
There is another consideration or dimension or category that comes into play when trying to appreciate “Grey’s Anatomy”. In a great Shakespeare play, you don’t really want to be there, however much you appreciate the plight of the place. No reader would want to endure along with Hamlet the hot house politics of Claudius’ court. You don’t want to be in Egypt with Anthony when Cleopatra is taking away from him what makes him Roman. Now, there are exceptions to this rule. It has been said that there are Janeites who are so taken with Regency England that they would love to consort with these fine talking people and their estates, and their balls in Bath, and their romances, though I rather think not, given Austen’s rather bleak view of the human condition, everyone just struggling and mostly failing to master their own quirks, neither pride nor prejudice being particularly charming. But you do want to be in Seattle Grace Hospital along with the denizens of “Grey’s Anatomy”. That is because most of them are charming or have some charm about them and some of the women and some of the men are spectacularly charming and good looking. You would like to have some of their adventures, also be so good at your craft that it is only a question of whether or not you are as good as the next one, not whether you are good at all. That is why the series is so alluring, why you don’t want it to end, because you want to go back to seeing these people, listen to their snappy and overly candid dialogue, especially about sex, and follow their very repetitious adventures, and that is so whether the plots or the emotions make any sense or not. It is therefore an unreal place, and so a failure at literature, but it remains an attractive place to visit.