by Shonda Rhimes
Double Blue Draft - October 2004
Dramatic Pilot - 49 pages
"I'm kinda screwed." - Meredith
If you know me, you know I couldn't spend a month looking at medical drama pilots without looking at "A Hard Day's Night," the pilot of Grey's Anatomy.
Grey's Anatomy premiered in March of 2005, and it is now in its 14th season. According to IMDb, it has been nominated for 206 awards and has won 69 of those. It's fair to say that the show is a hit, and I wanted to take a look back at how it all started.
While the episode opens with a surgical montage in the hospital - with Meredith's voice speaking over it - we actually meet Meredith on the floor of her living room, waking up from a one night stand. We're told she's "smart, awkward, irreverent, hard-working and... well, naked." And yes, she's in the arms of Derek Shepard - but at this point neither she or we know that he's the Derek Shepard, neurosurgeon extraordinaire, or that he's the love of her life.
I find the opening important for two reasons. First, since we meet Meredith at home blundering through a messy relationship issue and not at the hospital, the show's set up as a relationship show that just happens to be about doctors. This is a sharp contrast to many medical shows in which the medicine comes first - the doctors just happen to also be human beings. Second, knowing the show, we're introduced to Meredith along with her one big love. While the relationship starts as awkward and funny, we need to be rooting for it, and Rhimes achieves this through the use of humor.
Derek: You said "was"...
Meredith: My mother's not dead, she's... You know what? We don't have to do the thing.
Derek: Oh, we can do anything you want.
Meredith: The thing. Exchange the personal details of our lives, pretend we care...
We're laughing, but we're also aware that Derek's picking up on every word Meredith says. He noticed her use of past tense, and he expressed his sympathy. He does care. We already want this to work out.
Two other important relationships are set up in the pilot. First, there's Meredith and her "person," Cristina. In the episode, Derek challenges the interns to diagnosis one of his patients. Whoever does so can scrub in on his surgery. Not wanting to be anywhere near Derek after realizing she's effectively slept with her boss, Meredith partners with Cristina, promising Cristina the surgery if they find the answer. They do find the answer, but Meredith takes the surgery. Here, we learn that Meredith really wants to be a surgeon, that she's just as cutthroat as Cristina. Cristina later forgives her - as long as they don't have to be all emotional about it. They're competitors, but they also care about each other. This isn't going to be your average friendship.
Earlier I alluded to a voiceover, a technique I normally dislike. In this case, however, it ties directly into the story and sets up the final important relationship - Meredith and her mother, Ellis Grey. The story she's telling in the voiceover in the first scene is picked up, still in voiceover, on page 46. It stops for a scene between Meredith and Cristina (and then, briefly, Meredith and Derek) a page later, but then picks back up and, on the bottom of 48, switches from a voiceover to live dialogue. Meredith's sitting with her mother, Ellis, telling her this story, but Ellis doesn't even know who she is.
The reveal of Ellis's Alzheimer's is a punch in the gut for us, the audience, as, throughout the episode, we've been hearing how incredible Ellis is. There's the exchange with Derek on page 2; on 11 and 12 Cristina reveals to the other interns that Meredith isn't only inbred, she's the daughter of THE Ellis Grey who's "a living legend. A genius. She won the Harper-Avery. Twice." and they're all jealous; and, on 45, Richard tells Meredith, "You're the spitting image of your mother." We're expecting to meet a formidable, kickass surgeon. When we meet a woman who doesn't even recognize her own daughter? It's crushing. And we might even realize that this is Meredith's big secret.
Yes, Grey's Anatomy is a medical drama, but it is the character relationships that set it apart. They're what's kept it going for fourteen years and, really, so much was set up right in the pages of the pilot. It's a very well written, well planned out show. Rhimes has said that she's always known how the show ends. I wouldn't be surprised if, after seeing that scene, we all realize that it was somehow set up back in 2004.