Now that the dust has almost settled from last week's bombshell announcement that Jessica Capshaw and Sarah Drew will be leaving Grey's Anatomy at the end of this season, it's time to dive into the question that's on every Grey's fan's mind: Can the show survive another major cast shakeup?
It's worth mentioning that I've written a version of this story three times in the past four years, speculating about what would happen to Grey's after the departures of Cristina (it got worse!), Derek (it got better!), and Callie (it stayed the same!). Cast turnover is part of the fabric of the series, going all the way back to Isaiah Washington's shocking departure at the end of season three. Still, losing Arizona and April feels different somehow - maybe it's because letting two main characters go for "creative reasons" feels an awful lot like a firing, or because there are so few long-time characters left, or because Arizona and April represent the LGBTQ and conservative Christian communities, respectively, and that feels like more of a loss than bidding farewell to, say, DeLuca a.k.a. Douchebeard.
But if we're going to talk about where Grey's might go from here, we have to start by taking a hard look down into the abyss of season fourteen, which has been shaky at best. (The nostalgic, fan service-y 250th episode is a notable exception.) The show came into its fourteenth season with an albatross of pesky, ongoing storylines that it had been trying to resolve for, in some cases, literal years (Alex beat up Douchebeard in May 2016, for example). But rather than dive into the nitty-gritty of wrapping up those storylines, Grey's seemed content to resolve them in the most surface ways imaginable. Amelia's relationship with Owen hit an impasse, and the show excused away a decade of impulsive behavior with a brain tumor. Jo's abusive ex-husband finally tracked her down, and the writers killed him off in a random hit-and-run rather than hold him accountable for his actions,. (Nothing makes my blood boil more than picturing the writers' room settling on "idk, maybe he gets hit by a drunk driver" and then, like, taking a long lunch.) The storylines about Owen's missing sister and Nathan's feelings for Meredith were resolved by shipping Nathan and Abigail off to California. It's not that anyone was really rooting for Meredith and Nathan to make a go of it, but a TV series can only be so reliant on "whoops, never mind!" before it starts to feel lazy.
Arizona and April have been wedged into the storytelling just as haphazardly as every other ongoing character, really. Sofia announces that she wants to come live with Arizona, and then she does, and they eat ice cream and apparently that's that? Arizona gets trapped in a love triangle with Hunt and Carina, which fizzles when Hunt just seems to randomly lose interest in the orgasm expert. And while Sarah Drew has done some of the best acting of her career over the past few months - she's always been admirably philosophical about her approach to playing a character with April's erratic behavior - her character's ongoing storyline has been a hot, hot mess. The writers ignored her for most of the season and then turned her into the equivalent of a goth, partying teen - a pretty baffling choice, even for a character who's always been a little bit all over the place.
Letting Capshaw and Drew go feels like another example of Grey's opting to jettison something that isn't quite working, rather than trying to fix it - and two of the longest running, most beloved characters on the series deserve better than to be shunted to the side. They just do. (The more than 30,000 fans who have signed a petition in protest of Drew and Capshaw's dismissal seem to agree.)
The larger problem is that once April and Arizona have been cast aside, there isn't a whole lot left for Grey's to work with. No one wants to see a potential Jackson/Maggie relationship explored. Jason George (Ben) is leaving for the Grey's firehouse spinoff, which may in turn limit Bailey's arc. (To be fair, it may also expand it.) And then there’s the fact that the series hasn't done the work of making the new intern class all that interesting. We've been given outlines of characters, ideas of people rather than vibrant stories: the transgender man, the Muslim woman, the kid who drops his glasses inside a patient. Those characters are providing invaluable representation, but that's not enough to make them compelling characters.
Grey's hasn't done the work to make viewers invest in this new batch of kids, and its track record suggests that the show will eventually lose interest in doing so. After all, Jo is the sole member of her intern class left standing - that's an awful lot of characters to have been left by the wayside over the years. If Grey's isn't delivering characters who feel indispensable, it seems unfair to ask viewers to invest in them, especially in place of two women who have poured years of work into portraying Arizona and April.
It gives me no pleasure to say any of this. Grey's Anatomy has been a constant in my adult life (talking to Ellen Pompeo was a highlight of my career), and I will continue to watch the series until Zola is old enough to do simple surgical procedures on her own. No one wants Grey's Anatomy to succeed more than I do. (Maybe Ellen Pompeo.) I'm here until the bitter end, but I can't fault anyone for deciding to follow April and Arizona out the door.
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