Would the New York Yankees want to brave the World Series sans Jeter, A-Rod and Posada, three of their most tried-and-true starters? Not a chance. But when faced with a similar situation, Shonda Rhimes saw opportunity, not an obstacle.
With T.R. Knight not returning this season, Ellen Pompeo slated for maternity leave and Katherine Heigl taking time off to do a movie, the creator of ‘Grey’s Anatomy‘ had the unenviable task of tackling November sweeps episodes without three of her original cast members. But rather than entertain any anxiety, “We plunged right in,” Rhimes tells Fancast.com in an exclusive interview. “We knew this time was coming so we planned for it. And we were excited about it.”
As it would turn out, George’s death in the season opener in part fed Izzie’s decision to take fresh stock of her life and skedaddle out of Seattle after being fired. Pompeo’s “absence,” meanwhile, was deftly managed by pre-filming scenes that keep Mer in the mix throughout sweeps – starting this week when Derek (Patrick Dempsey) needs her most.
Add in a bevy of Mercy West transplants, and Rhimes spied a new canvas on which to paint. “We had come into this season already thinking of ways to change how we tell stories, to make it new and fresh and richer for the audience,” she says.
Perhaps no Season 6 episode demonstrated that thinking as clearly as last week’s, in which a patient’s unnecessary death was explored ‘Rashomon’-style. Another powerful hour arrives this Thursday when Derek goes toe-to-toe with the Chief, all in the name of performing possibly life-saving surgery on one of Seattle Grace’s own.
As opposed to years past, when for example a ferry accident would tee up big drama, “This season the ‘events’ are the episodes themselves,” says Rhimes.
“The journey that Derek is on started in the first episode of this season,” when the hospital board dangled the Chief’s job in front of Dr. Shepherd, Rhimes explains. The latest beat in that arc had Derek laying the blame for last week’s tragedy at the feet of his boss and the chaos created by the hospitals’ merger.
Examining Derek’s latest crisis of conscience as an elite surgeon, Rhimes says, “I always feel like it’s really wonderful to see him struggling with what he thinks he can do surgically and what is possible.”
Meredith’s husband (via Post-It note) ran into a similar wall this past spring, when he was dealt the double blow of losing a pregnant patient and facing a sobering truth about the mortality rate of those he operated on in the past. The result was somewhat of a nightmare for McDreamy fans, as the dynamic doctor went dark and came thisclose to quitting.
“He’s been sort of perfect for a while,” notes Rhimes, “so it’s nice to get a chance to mess him up.” Another reason for serving up such storytelling: “Patrick [Dempsey] does an amazing job with it,” Rhimes beams. “I really enjoy watching him.”
Speaking of tinkering with something that’s perfect, does Rhimes foresee the ‘Grey’s’ ensemble as emerging from the merger storyline looking markedly different? Could any of the remaining new residents – played by Nora Zehetner, Jesse Williams and Robert Baker – prove to be keepers?
While a source tells Fancast that at least one of those three will be around for a minimum of three more episodes, Rhimes says, “We’re not really approaching it from that point of view at this point.”
Alluding to past hits (such as Jessica Capshaw’s Arizona and Eric Dane’s McSteamy) and misses (Brooke Smith’s Dr. Erica Hahn), she notes, “Sometimes we keep our guest actors… and sometimes we don’t.”