'Grey's Anatomy'

Entering its fifth season, "Grey's Anatomy" has experienced an unusual flip: Where the medical cases once felt like the window dressing to augment the drama's core characters, the meaty guest roles are now far more interesting and tolerable than the increasingly tiresome and convoluted web of intramural romances.

Entering its fifth season, “Grey’s Anatomy” has experienced an unusual flip: Where the medical cases once felt like the window dressing to augment the drama’s core characters, the meaty guest roles are now far more interesting and tolerable than the increasingly tiresome and convoluted web of intramural romances. During the premiere, the head doctor chides his staff, accusing them of “resting on our laurels.” Yet while the series remains a major hit, its storytelling appears to be rapidly exhausting its supply of viable laurels upon which to rest.

Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that the on-again, off-again, maybe-on-again relationship between Seattle Grace Hospital resident Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and surgeon Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) has become so irritating that even Meredith’s prickly pal Cristina (Sandra Oh) finally pleads, “I’ll give you $100 if you talk about something else.”

Viewers can avoid the issue for considerably less, but that would mean missing topnotch guest shots by Bernadette Peters and Kathy Baker in the premiere written by series creator Shonda Rhimes. It would also mean forgoing the arrival of “Rome’s” Kevin McKidd as a macho Army trauma surgeon and possible love interest for Cristina, which actually puts a real Scotsman into the “McDreamy-McSteamy” haggis.

Unfortunately, what initially made “Grey’s” so appealing — watching these young doctors balance romance and work, mostly by hopping onto a gurney (or into an elevator) with the nearest willing coworker — has become the show’s Achilles heel. A new potential liaison this year only adds to the sense that before it’s all over, every hospital employee will have slept with a colleague twice — or, barring that, wistfully longed to bed them, accompanied by a pop-friendly musical montage.

Rhimes certainly knows how to plant emotional hooks with the best of them and weave confusion and longing into each week’s subplots. The show also has assembled such a talented cast as to power through some of the missteps, beginning with its inane Izzie-George-Callie triangle, which is morphing into a trapezoid or perhaps even hexagon.

At some point, though, a program this reliant on workplace sexcapades begins to run out of combinations, and the writers haven’t done much more to address the problem than pad on new layers of interns (starting with Meredith’s younger sister, played by Chyler Leigh) to further confound things.

“Grey’s” has such a loyal fan base that ABC needn’t worry about flatlining any time soon; still, assuming the desire to stay at this hospital depends on replenishing key storylines, the longterm diagnosis doesn’t look good. Of course, if you disagree, feel free to get a second opinion.

Grey's Anatomy

ABC, Thurs. Sept. 25, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Los Angeles by Shondaland and the Mark Gordon Co. in association with ABC Studios. Executive producers, Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers, Mark Gordon, Krista Vernoff, Rob Corn, Mark Wilding, Allan Heinberg; co-executive producers, Joan Rater, Tony Phelan; supervising producer, Jenna Bans; director, Corn; writer, Rhimes.

Crew

Camera, Herbert Davis; production designer, Donald Lee Harris; editor, David Greenspan. RUNNING TIME: 120 MIN.

Cast

Meredith Grey - Ellen Pompeo Derek Shepherd - Patrick Dempsey Cristina Yang - Sandra Oh Isobel "Izzie" Stevens - Katherine Heigl Alex Karev - Justin Chambers George O'Malley - T.R. Knight Miranda Bailey - Chandra Wilson Richard Webber - James Pickens Jr. Callie Torres - Sara Ramirez Mark Sloan - Eric Dane Lexie Grey - Chyler Leigh Erica Hahn - Brooke Smith

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