There's lots to admire about the evolution of television, with the rise of prestige dramas, series created for bingeing, and all the creative and narrative liberties they afford.
But there's also something to admire about the event episode. The big, fat, broadcast TV stunt that is advertised with blaring sirens and neon flashing lights. Ludicrous, implausible, utterly random acts of God that terrorize your beloved characters, in turn riveting you to your TV.
Shonda Rhimes knows her way around a stunt.
In the grand tradition of NYPD Blue, ER, and Law & Order (particularly of the SVU variety), Rhimes is a skilled maestro, masterfully conducting the loud, bombastic swell of the stunt episode, the must-see TV event.
And Thursday night? She proved not only that she's still got the touch, but, for a series that's been on for 12 seasons and many people have written off as a broadcast relic in an age of streaming cable, that Grey's Anatomy is still capable of a first-class viewing experience.
"The Sound of Silence," Thursday's night blockbuster episode of Grey's, certainly made due on the first requirement of quality stunt television: promote the goddamn hell out of it.
Footage of Ellen Pompeo's Dr. Meredith Grey being beat up by a patient and left for dead on a hospital room floor has been promoted with the admirable aggression of, well, a network promoting an event episode.
There's a cheapness to stunt TV, sure. But there's also a crass beauty to it.
It's a high-risk creative gamble that only pays off when the series has properly built a universe of characters we are so invested in that we can forgive the implausibility of the larger-than-life situations we're about to find them in. Characters that we care so deeply for that the ludicrous scenario we're about to watch doesn't reek of a ratings grab or audience exploitation, but instead delivers a dramatic payoff.
It's a kind of television that the slow-burn cable drama or the even slower-moving atmospheric television that has become all the rage in the age of streaming and binging can't get away with. It's television that you can't just watch at your leisure. It demands that you watch it right now. In an age of on-demand viewing, it's the last remaining TV that has any sense of urgency.
And on all accounts, "The Sound of Silence" delivered.
A standout performance from Ellen Pompeo, who for over a decade has been one of TV's most criminally underrated actresses, spotlighted a daringly directed (by Denzel Washington!) episode that just didn't shock for shock value's sake, but had meaningful things to say about female power, victimization, forgiveness, and resilience.
Even though it still ranks as one of the highest-rated dramas on all of television, the most common response I get when I mention something about Grey's Anatomy is, "Oh my god! That's still on?" Thursday's episode proves why we should be so glad that is—and it reminds us why we fell in love with it in the first place.
The episode began with Dr. Grey narrating a monologue on the gender politics of ambition in the professional workplace.
Underlining the theme of the episode, she says, "In this world where men are bigger, stronger, faster, if you're not ready to fight, the silence will kill you." This, of course, is an episode where we all know that Dr. Grey, a highly intelligent female surgeon, is about to be attacked by a man whose sheer strength overwhelms her.
Is it heavy-handed? God yes. But this is Grey's Anatomy. It's supposed to be.
A major thing that is lost in television criticism is the concept of audience. Is Grey's Anatomy, or any Shondaland creation for that matter, high art? Couldn't be farther from it. But does it expertly execute a tricky balance of camp, soap, and culturally provocative drama? Better than anyone in the game, and that's why it has value.
The handling of the big attack scene in "The Sound of Silence" proves it.
Dr. Grey is treating a patient who wakes up after a seizure disoriented and confused. She is alone in the treatment room with him and, because of his brain trauma, he starts beating her when she tries to get him back into bed. The door to the room is closed and the blinds are drawn. Dr. Grey is helpless.
In a remarkable directorial decision, the most brutal parts of the attack aren't actually shown. This is another way this broadcast TV stunt differs from a cable series. The graphic images are left to the imagination instead of being shown as some Game of Thrones-esque violence porn.
I'd argue there's a greater creative payoff because of it. The way the attack is presented akin to a scene in a horror film. What you don't see is scarier than what you do.
There's not enough credit being given to ABC for the bold storytelling freedom it grants its content makers.
You look at a series like American Crime, which will air an entire episode of two-person dialogue scenes, often times not even cutting to the perspective of the minor player in the conversation, and then cap the whole hour off with a five-minute interpretive dance.
There's a similar provocative mode of storytelling at play here. During the attack Dr. Grey's eardrums burst and she was made temporarily deaf.
Making the harrowing decision to play most of the episode from the perspective of Dr. Grey—thus viscerally portraying her fear, confusion, and distress as she heals from the trauma—most of the episode plays out without any dialogue, instead soundtracked by the unsettling siren sound that Dr. Grey hears and sometimes even silence.
Sound, then, becomes the first indicator that she's getting better. Denzel Washington, eh? This guy's got a future.
Ellen Pompeo was spectacular in the episode, given the arduous task of acting without being able to speak, conveying the myriad emotions a person victimized in this way feels without the vehicle of speech to express them. Still, she manages to telegraph the conflicted feelings a person has as a victim of an act no one can be held truly accountable for. She portrays the burden of being a good patient.
Sticking true to a narrative that's defined Meredith Grey for over a decade, Pompeo continued to explore the idea of likability, and whether that should matter in the portrayal of a lead television character. Grey wasn't a noble or accommodating patient. She was a raging bitch and looked like shit.
It was beautifully messy. Meredith Grey is still imperfect. It's hard to watch. And it's fantastic.
In terms of Grey's history of event episodes, it's unlikely that "The Sound of Silence" will be remembered as iconically as the ferry crash or the bomb episode. But it may actually be the more valuable than both.
That's the other benefit of stunt TV: it's a clever way to remind casual viewers of a long-running series' relevance.
There was a time that Grey's Anatomy was a religion for me. I was one of many devout followers. Over 12 seasons, we've lost our faith a bit. We've become lapse worshippers. But once in a while we still return to our church.
Like a Christmas-and-Easter Catholic, we're conditioned to return on major occasions. Stunt episodes are our religious holidays.
We find that it is possible to return now and again. We don't know who the hell half the characters are at this point, and can't give a crap about who's boinking whom. But when Meredith, or Alex, or Bailey have a crisis, we're invested. They're our people. We haven't seen them in a while. But they're still our people.
And Grey's Anatomy? It's still our show. We picked it. We chose it. And we still love it.