Later this month, Grey's Anatomy will hit a feat seldom achieved on television when the ABC medical drama enters its 10th season as a top 10 TV show.
What started off as an interweaving tale of a group of interns struggling to stay afloat at one of America's top hospitals has evolved over nine seasons, becoming a platform for stories deconstructing the human condition, including race, sexuality and — as with any great Shondaland series — relationships. But hitting its 10th season, as well as the 200-episode mark, does raise the question of how long Grey's can continue.
The series has proven its longevity with a revolving door of doctors joining Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital née Seattle Grace. The core characters, otherwise known as The Fab Five — Meredith (Ellen Pompeo), Cristina (Sandra Oh), Alex (Justin Chambers), George (T.R. Knight) and Izzie (Katherine Heigl) — and their bosses — Webber (James Pickens Jr.), Burke (Isaiah Washington), Bailey (Chandra Wilson) and Derek (Patrick Dempsey) — have been joined by a bevy of new faces over the years that fans now can't imagine the show without, like Callie (Sara Ramirez), Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) and Owen (Kevin McKidd). There were also those Mercy West transplants, such as Avery (Jesse Williams) and April (Sarah Drew), and the latest crop of interns who were just promoted to series regulars, including Camilla Luddington.
There have, of course, been plenty of exits that caused panic about the show's longevity. But even when original cast members Washington, Knight and Heigl all departed, Grey's rarely stumbled. Then there was the infamous axing of both Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh) and Mark Sloan (Eric Dane) in that fateful plane crash. Again, Grey's didn't skip a beat creatively or in the ratings.
During its ninth season, the show placed 10th overall in the adults ages 18-49 demographic over the broadcast networks, averaging a 4.1 rating and continuing its reign as ABC's top drama. Though the series is down considerably from its heyday of averaging around 20 million viewers — broadcast numbers have all dwindled as additional options became available on cable and other platforms — Grey's came in second only to Castle for ABC dramas in total viewers, averaging roughly 11 million. In other words, the medical drama still has a strong pulse.
However, the show will face one of its most difficult exits yet when Oh leaves at the end of this coming season. Even with that knowledge ahead of time, executive producer Shonda Rhimes has expressed early and often that she isn't looking at Season 10 as the end of the series — a sentiment the cast also shares. "I think it's been very clear from ABC and also Shonda that she'll continue on with the show," Dempsey tells TVGuide.com from the set of the upcoming 200th episode. "You look at ER and it went on for 15 years and a lot of the original cast was gone from there. Because it's such a procedural, I think it will continue to go on."
As for whether that means continuing the series with the remaining original cast members, Dempsey would only speak for himself. "I think it's worth having a discussion," he says. "If it's the right fit for all of us and everybody is happy and feels creative and productive, I think it could work. It's been a remarkable ride to be here for 10 years."
Even Oh's main scene partner doesn't think her exit spells the end. "I wrestled with it a little bit because I thought it might be nice to have Cristina and Owen walk off into the sunset together," McKidd says. "But for whatever reason that it's obviously the right moment for Sandra to do this, for me, it isn't. Sandra, Ellen, Patrick and all those guys have four or five years on me at playing these characters. I still feel like I have areas of Owen I'd like to get a chance to explore because I really love this character the more and more I get to play him."
Still, the cast does recognize that Oh's exit may make some fans uneasy. After all, Cristina has served as a backbone for the series with her dry wit and fierce competitiveness — exemplary of the show's initial drive for the interns to push each other in their quest to be the best. "Of course, change can be uncomfortable," Ramirez says. "But I am choosing to stay hopeful that the writers will continue to be inspired by everyone who is still here and that their creative juices will keep flowing in a way that feels right for the show and for the fans."
Pompeo also cites the show's fans as being key to its survival. "We have an amazing fan base," she says, pointing out the two distinct sects. Many of the show's viewers have been following the series since the beginning."Those kids who are now graduating medical school because they were inspired [by us]," Pompeo says. However, there are also millions of fans who have binge-watched in recent years to join the dedicated swell. "We have this whole other group of young people who are 13- or 14-year-olds — I'm always reminded on Twitter how young they are — that are just discovering the show and watching all nine seasons on Netflix all at once," Pompeo says. "The show has had this incredible resurgence with a whole other generation, which we're extremely grateful for."
That resurgence goes hand-in-hand with the creative direction of the series, which has matured with its audience from the days of one-night stands, syphilis and tequila, to weddings, McMansions and baby formula. The show's leading couple, Meredith and Derek, have graduated from a classic will-they-or-won't-they couple to married, settled adults facing more serious issues like how to balance their personal and professional lives — something that will be explored in the opening episodes of the coming season as Meredith contemplates whether she has time to run a hospital and raise two children.
Of course, fans really couldn't imagine a world in which Meredith Grey didn't roam the halls of the hospital she was raised in, especially since she is the Grey in Grey's Anatomy. But, inadvertently or not, Rhimes and her writers ingeniously set events in motion that would make that point moot. Seattle Grace is now called the Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, which could plausibly be the Grey of Grey's Anatomy. For the record, Pompeo said she hasn't made a decision on her future as of yet, but is extremely grateful for what the show has provided her over the years. "I've built an incredible life," she says. "I have a great family. So it's been a big part of my life, but not my whole life."
Regardless of who stays or goes, Rhimes doesn't show any signs of slowing down creatively, even heading into the show's 200th episode. Whereas Episode 100 centered on Alex and Izzie's lavish wedding, the momentous 200th outing will be marked by subtle touches that longtime (and eagle-eyed) Grey's fans will surely enjoy — seemingly a nod to those that have kept the show on the air.
Grey's Anatomy returns for a two-hour premiere on Thursday, Sept. 26 at 9/8c on ABC.