Saturday, October 25, 2008

Grey's Anatomy: Now With 40% More Suckiness

On Grey's Anatomy, saving lives is easier than having lesbian sex.

We have already established that I have not been a regular viewer of Grey's Anatomy, that ABC show about Patrick Dempsey's dimples and Eric Dane's impressive pecs. (It is also, sometimes, about practicing medicine. And I think it might exist in part to drive viewers over to iTunes. That's one of two possible explanations for why they showcase so much new music so prominently in each episode; the other is that the people who make TV shows have become so lazy -- Nip/Tuck was also guilty of this back when I bothered tuning in -- that they'd sooner crank up the music at dramatic moments than create big emotional pay-offs themselves. As long as Jeff Buckley's rendition of "Hallelujah" keeps being licensed to everyone who asks for it, writers will never have to come up with anything deep and meaningful ever again!)

My reasons for not loyally watching Grey's Anatomy are simple: I like good writing (which does exist on Grey's Anatomy, as far as I can tell, just not with a great deal of consistency), and I'm immune to the charms of hunky male doctors in various states of undress. Every time I've seen the show, or parts of the show, it has struck me as little more than a pop culture savvy version of a Harlequin novel, filmed in high-definition. The plucky heroines doggedly pursue their professional goals while despairing about their personal lives, which often involve affairs with older, smarter, more accomplished men they've met on the job. The women, with all of their soppy feelings and nagging insecurities, struggle to balance their personal and professional lives, leading to all manner of turgid melodrama; the men seem rather less conflicted. It is one of the tritest stories anyone can write, and I can't fathom tuning into it for an hour a week 22 or 24 times per season.

However, like many a representation-starved homo, I'm a sucker for a gay storyline. There are so few of them on TV, particularly featuring female characters, that I feel an obligation (however waning -- 'cause nothing was going to get me to watch Cashmere Mafia) to check them out when they do come along. So late last season, when word came that Grey's Anatomy was going to have new best friends Callie Torres and Erica Hahn, both established heterosexuals, attempt a lesbian relationship together, I started to pay a bit of attention. The early signs weren't encouraging: Their first kiss happened in front of Mark Sloan, the hospital casanova who was also Callie's fuck buddy, and their second kiss happened in the season finale only after Mark encouraged Callie to pursue Erica. Once again, Mark watched them together, this time from a distance that meant they (or at least Erica) were unaware of his voyeurism. The season ended on a note that left fans of the Callie/Erica pairing (dubbed "Callica" on the Internet) giddily optimistic -- their favorite characters were last spotted making out right in front of the hospital.

Now, me, I'm a pessimist. I've seen too many TV shows and too many movies botch too many lesbian hookups to have any faith they'll be handled with tact. That Grey's Anatomy is, as I've previously opined, "quite possibly the straightest TV show of all time," did little to assuage my fears. (Seriously, I hear the words Grey's Anatomy and all I can picture are mobs of salivating straight women trying to storm Seattle Grace so they can rip the scrubs off McDreamy and McSteamy and McRambo and whoever else I'm forgetting, and give them examinations no HMO would pay for.) It seemed instructive that the writers hadn't been able to pull off any "Callica" kisses that didn't prominently feature Mark and his reactions, so my expectations for season five were low. So far they've been met.

To be fair to the Grey's writing staff, the season is still young. And of the five episodes that have aired so far, only two have really advanced the Callie/Erica storyline. Last week's episode, called "Brave New World," found the normally brash Callie freaking out at the prospect of going on her first date with Erica. Was her panic a wee bit over-the-top, considering she'd been the one to initiate their rather public kissing session at the end of season four? I certainly thought so, but at the same time I was willing to concede that one could easily argue Callie's nervousness made sense. And while the dialogue, which mostly addressed Callie's apprehensions about what lies below the Mason-Dixon line of Erica's pants (her words, not mine), annoyed the hell out of me, I could see how several of the exchanges, particularly the ones Callie had with Dr. Bailey, the hospital's no-nonsense chief resident, were representative of the sauciness viewers expect from Grey's Anatomy.

It is markedly more difficult to rationalize the stupidity of this week's episode, "There's No 'I' in Team." Things started off promisingly enough, with Callie and Erica opting against taking it slow. Yes, their clinch was physically awkward, but that will only endear them to some viewers. (Perhaps those who are reminded of Nan's words in the novel Tipping the Velvet: "Our kisses were imperfect ones, as all new lovers' kisses are ... but -- again, like all new lovers' kisses -- their very strangeness made them thrilling." Remember how Nan was nervous about being with her first partner, Kitty? Remember how she didn't act like a blithering idiot about it? That was nice, wasn't it?) But it didn't take long for Callie's anxiety to resurface, and she sought out the esteemed manwhore Dr. Sloan for advice:
Callie: Last night, Erica and I, we ... we did it. Sort of.

Mark: Congratulations.

Callie: No. No, no. It was not good. At all. I choked. I couldn't go down there. I tried, but it just felt so weird and clinical, like gynie rotation. I left this morning before she got up. I couldn't even face her. What if, what if me and Erica are, what if -- what if we were a mistake? Where are you going?

Mark: I can't talk about this.

Callie: Oh, c'mon, you love talking about this stuff. Girl-on-girl, it's hot.

Mark: Two girls getting nasty and loving it, that's hot. One girl talking about how much it sucked? Depressing. And wrong. Just wrong.

He's right that it's wrong, but I'd replace his "depressing" with stupid. Because in this case, with these characters, that exchange -- the whole Callie/sex panic subplot in general -- was just stupid. And it got even stupider when Callie, after breaking up with Erica over her sexual humiliation ("I'm not cut out for this. The touching, and the sex with a girl, I just -- I can't do it"), asked Mark for a hands-on demonstration:
Callie: Just hear me out. I like to be good at things, okay? I do not fail, I do not quit. I like to be good at things, and I want to be good at this. So I need you. I need you to show me.
Mark, being a Good Samaritan, valiantly leapt to his feet and ripped off his shirt, telling a delighted Callie to take off her pants: "I'll show you the slow method. It'll never be in a medical journal, but it should." Later in the episode, Callie finds Erica in an on-call room and mimics her sensei's moves, right down to the shirt removal and de-pantsing order. The last thing we hear her say is, "We're trying this again." She doesn't mention her tutorial with Mark, who has an antagonistic relationship with Erica, because that kind of honesty might prevent her from ever seeing Erica naked again. And probably also because Erica's a cardiothoracic surgeon, and that's the kind of surgeon you really don't want to piss off. It's one of those general rules I follow in life, handed down to me by my parents and grandparents: hold doors open for the people behind you, don't litter, and never piss off a cardiothoracic surgeon.

Now, this is why I'm annoyed...

The notion that a woman would need a man to teach her how to pleasure a woman is patently absurd and either horrifically insulting or merely not terribly progressive, depending on how strongly you want to put it. At the same time, it's about what I'd expect from a show like Grey's Anatomy. What I don't understand is why they're going down that path with this particular character. Because, if I can be blunt, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me that a woman who is supposed to be as sexual as Callie wouldn't know her way around a clitoris. If nothing else, she has one of her own. Right?

And, in addition to being a grown woman who is presumably familiar with all of her own territory "below the Mason-Dixon line" (or her lady business, if you're the Tina Fey type), she is also a highly skilled surgeon. She knows where the parts are located and how they work, and she knows what she sexually responds to, so ... isn't the framework already in place for her to understand the mechanics of lesbian sex? (Isn't that a yearly calendar, The Mechanics of Lesbian Sex? Jenny Shimizu is on the cover, her face smudged with grease, wearing nothing under her bib overalls? I think I saw that at Barnes & Noble.) And wasn't she already told by Dr. Bailey, who is much, much wiser than Mark, that the key to having good sex with Erica would be communication? Was Bailey remiss not to clarify that the communication was supposed to be with Erica and not Mark's tongue?

If I can be completely honest, at the risk of sounding like a tool -- and I figure I sound like a tool most of the time, so this shouldn't be a huge departure -- I went into this viewing experience at the end of last season harboring prejudices that the writers of Grey's Anatomy are a bunch of frivolous heterosexual women who have no genuine interest in writing a compelling and realistic portrayal of a lesbian relationship. (Yes, I know they met with GLAAD. That's one of the reasons I felt confident the storyline would suck.) I mean, they already seem clueless when it comes to writing decent heterosexual storylines, so how could they be anything but seriously out of their league trying the gay thing? There's still ample time in season five for them to prove me wrong, but so far this has been pretty pathetic.

Would anyone but a roomful of giggly, immature heterosexual TV writers think that girl-on-girl action is so endlessly complicated and fucking hilarious that it merits two full episodes -- and who knows what the future holds -- of wacky "motherland" hijinks? (And what's with the enormous emphasis on oral sex? Surely the writers have premium cable and know that there are many different things Callie and Erica might be doing, but all Callie seemed to focus on was oral sex. It served two purposes: it didn't get too specifically lesbian, because heterosexuals know all about oral sex, and it kept a half-naked Mark in the mix. But I think it came off as odd to many viewers.) Callie's dilemma was somewhat tolerable in "Brave New World," but her scenes in "There's No 'I' in Team" were so ill-conceived and poorly executed that, coupled with everything else that has gone on with her this season, you can't help but wonder who is really flirting with lesbianism here: Callie, or the writers of Grey's? (And is it just me or does Sara Ramirez, who actively supports many gay causes, often looked disconnected from this storyline? My guess would be that privately -- it's doubtful she'd ever pull a Heigl if it's true -- she might not be thrilled with how it has been handled.)

What makes it even worse, at least from my perspective, is that lesbian viewers have a tendency to be far too forgiving of such mediocrity. Historically, what happens when a TV show introduces a lesbian subplot is that it attracts a group of fans (also known as "shippers" in Internet parlance, and viewers can "ship" pairs of any gender combination), some of whom had never watched the show before, and they quickly grow overly invested in the storyline. They create their own message boards with vomit-inducing banners that feature screen grabs of characters embracing plastered across the top of each page; they adopt in-jokes and slogans relating to the minutiae of the storyline, frequently repeating throwaway dialogue the average viewer wouldn't remember; they write fan-fiction and upload endless numbers of embarrassing YouTube "tribute" videos with montages of their favorite couple set to every horrible song that ever had significance to one of their own romantic relationships.

It's the stuff the Internet is made of, but I don't have the constitution for it. The way super-fans plumb even the most inconsequential exchanges for deeper meanings ("just a thought: when she said 'hi, how are you?' she really meant that personally she hadn't been fine, that her life had been incomplete until the night they met" type stuff, but a thousand times crazier), and comb through 30-second network promos like they're analyzing fibers from a crime scene, depresses me. These viewers, gay viewers, are lunging for table scraps, grateful for even the tiniest crumb -- which is generally all they receive -- and they deserve much better.

Of course, they don't always see it that way. Some viewers are so desperate for any kind of lesbian representation on TV that they'll defend anything as permissible and realistic. Callie and Erica could pull a Thelma and Louise and spend November sweeps trying to elude the F.B.I., and at the end of it you could probably visit any TV message board with an ongoing "Callica" discussion and find a few posts that say "Watching tonight's episode really brought back painful memories of the time my best friend and I killed a man and drove off the edge of the Grand Canyon together." There are people who will always be happy with crap, and there are networks that will always be happy to supply it. Will Grey's Anatomy continue that trend? We'll know soon enough.

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