If you watched this week’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy and felt nothing, then you’re doing it wrong. If your heart didn’t race just a little and your palms didn’t glisten with anxiety-induced sweat, then you probably shouldn’t be watching this television show.
Last week I wrote about the reasons we watch melodrama, and this week I want to specifically address the doctor melodrama. Between the clever sitcoms and the unfortunate reality television, there are three doctor shows that I like to watch: Grey’s, House, and Off the Map. Grey’s and House have been running for about the same time, and though they both fit the genre of drama, I wouldn’t consider House to be a melodrama.
For me, melodrama is defined by its ability to elicit visceral reactions. When I watch Dr. House diagnose a case, I’m not physically moved. I may be mentally swayed by his purposefully circuitous arguments or his caustic remarks, but my body feels nothing. This is the crucial difference between drama and melodrama–no heightened emotional reaction that can lead to a corresponding bodily response. We don’t cry at dramas like The King’s Speech, but we do squirm and cover our widened eyes at melodramas like 127 Hours. That’s right, a movie or a television show doesn’t have to take place in an innately dramatic setting like a hospital in order to be considered melodrama. But the hospital scenario is certainly an effective environment for staging this sub-genre.
The hospital is essentially a place of life and death. If we’re thinking in terms of basic metaphors for the human condition and all that cultural philosophy stuff, what could possibly be more dramatic than a hospital? And if, as I’ve posited before, we watch most of our television shows through the subjective perspectives of our own experiences, then we also watch this perpetual unfolding of life and death through our own encounters with the same themes.
Televised surgery makes me anxious because I want to see the patient live. But as this last episode illustrates, even if the patient dies, I still get to see his complete narrative in the span of an hour. The narratives involving the doctors carry on in subsequent episodes, but most patient plots are confined to a single show. This is an important component of the doctor melodrama because we get to experience an entire cycle of conflict and resolution: the patient enters the hospital, the patient is diagnosed, the patient has a life-threatening emergency or complications, the patient either lives or dies, and finally in the denouement, the patient is released or a doctor calls the family to inform them of the patient’s death. We often don’t know what will happen in the doctors’ narratives from week to week, but we can still feel as if some finality is achieved through the various patient plots.
Good doctor melodramas make us feel something, but eventually they return us gently to our presumably less dramatic real lives. This is why every episode of Grey’s begins and ends with Meredith Grey’s monologue, a generally trite, mildly philosophic evaluation of the trials and tribulations of life. We slip into her world briefly, experience a full life cycle of emotions, and then we’re guided back out until next week. A week of real life seems positively bland in comparison to a single hour of television time.