Most of us who love ''Grey's Anatomy" don't bother pretending the show deserves an oh-so-serious label such as ''hospital drama." That's akin to calling the cartoonlike ''24" a political drama. If ''24" is a political drama, then so is ''Batman."
''Grey's Anatomy" is a nighttime soap opera with scalpels and condoms. It's a mash of love, sex, and comedy at Fantasy General Hospital, where even the patients are hot -- and I'm not talking fever. It's a prime-time festival of narcissism and self-mythologizing melodrama, with a few urgent health crises in the background for color.
If you were trying to plumb ''Grey's Anatomy" for deeper meanings, you'd be X-raying the wrong patient. This is a show whose title is a bad pun on a classic textbook, a show that does away with hospital ethics if they get in the way of a juicy kiss or one of Meredith Grey's armchair truisms about herself. This is a show that puts the ''me" back in medical, complete with unrepentantly self-absorbed characters and a willingness to ignore a bomb squadder's death to focus on Meredith's beloved existential angst.
''Grey's Anatomy" is shamelessly short on altruism.
And yet that's why so many of us have fallen for creator Shonda Rhimes's series since it debuted as a midseason replacement last March. Simply put, the ABC hit is not a guilt trip. It's not a lofty portrait of medical heroics, it's not a lesson in health-insurance issues, it's not sanctimonious or preachy.
Most hourlong hospital series are populated with doctors out to rid the world of suffering, from the Dr. Marcus Welbys of classic TV to the more flawed but no less humanitarian likes of Drs. Carter and Greene on ''ER." But Meredith, Cristina, George, Izzie, and the rest of the Seattle Grace healers of ''Grey's Anatomy" are far from noble. Indeed, they're more motivated by competition, praise, and sex than by magnanimity. Who wouldn't bet on the unsentimental, fiercely ambitious Cristina (Sandra Oh) if she were cast in ''Survivor: Hospital"? And yet she is not made into a villain in the ''Grey's Anatomy" universe; she's just another intern with a complicated social life. (Indeed, the series' original title was ''Complications.") Cristina's jealousies and emotional limitations, which Oh makes both comic and believable, are merely self-indulgent and human.
Think of it this way: Last week, Izzie (Katherine Heigl) and heart patient Denny segued from flirtation to hugging on ''Grey's Anatomy," while Carter and Pratt were saving lives in Darfur on ''ER."
Certainly an important key to the success of ''Grey's Anatomy" has been its time slot, since ABC strategically placed the show after its ''Desperate Housewives" juggernaut. But TV series with strong lead-ins and pretty casts do fail, despite their advantages. The great lure of ''Grey's Anatomy" is that it offers viewers a moral neutral zone where there are no demons or high-principled demigods, just a bunch of smarties looking for self-realization and trying to avoid syphilis.
The writers seem to flaunt the characters' narcissism when it comes to hospital ethics. ''Grey's Anatomy" is all about the doctors, and only tangentially about the patients. It's not uncommon for the MDs to squabble in front of seriously ill people, such as the time Izzie and George (T.R. Knight) bickered about their failing friendship and didn't notice a woman having a seizure.
These doctors don't bother with professional formality among themselves, either, as they're constantly jumping one another's bones. Cristina and Burke (Isaiah Washington), Izzie and Alex (Justin Chambers), George and Meredith (Ellen Pompeo), Meredith and Derek (Patrick Dempsey), and others have had relations before working together in the operating room.
One time the boundary between Meredith's personal and professional lives dissolved so thoroughly that her one-night stand showed up at Seattle Grace with a case of priapism. It was a signature moment for the series.
''Grey's Anatomy" is such a Sunday night flight from reality that it doesn't even try to get us to ponder race, despite the fact that it features one of TV's more multicultural casts. The show rarely if ever contains a mention of color difference, and clashes between the doctors never resort to slurs or racially based suspicions, as they do on almost every other TV drama, from ''Law & Order" to ''The Sopranos." The peaceful cross-racial alliances contain no hidden tensions, either, even the love affairs -- between Cristina, who is Asian, and Burke, who is black, for example. The show is a virtual utopia when it comes to one of the world's most incendiary problems.
''Grey's Anatomy" is often compared to ''Ally McBeal," since David E. Kelley's seminal dramedy also revolved around the insecurities of a single professional heroine. But Kelley used his show to push race buttons, gender buttons -- any button he could put his finger on. Rhimes and her fellow writers don't want to rile viewers; they want to give us a vacation from Issues. Occasionally, a question of gender creeps into the mix, such as the possible mommy tracking of Dr. Bailey (Chandra Wilson), but generally speaking the series is not aiming for the cover of Newsweek, where it will be accompanied by a culturally relevant headline about post-post-post-feminism.
Yet ''Grey's Anatomy" does have the veneer of an ''important show," for those who need to convince themselves it's more than a bit of fancy. As Meredith, Pompeo reads her voice-overs as if they're fresh musings on life, but if you listen to them closely, they're Hallmark-level observations. Last week, she noted, ''Letting someone in means abandoning the walls you spent a lifetime building." The dialogue can be funny enough; who can forget Dr. Bailey in labor and exclaiming, ''O'Malley, stop looking at my vajayjay"? And Meredith's new surrogate relationship with her knitting has become an amusing recurring joke. With the word ''seriously" recurring for comic effect, the scripts have a distinctive rhythm.
But profound and provocative they aren't. Seriously. When you anatomize ''Grey's Anatomy," you'll find a heart, a brain, but not a lot of guts.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.