America Loves Vanilla

Can't buy me love: Dr. Shephard (Patrick Dempsey) and his sullen intern

Sandra Oh is like lemonade spiked with bathtub whiskey: tart, refreshing, and just dangerous enough to generate a buzz without warning. She looks smashing in stretch denim. Her hair tends to slip free of its moorings when she emotes. Her star turn in Sideways provoked more than a few critics to rhapsodize about her deadpan charm.

The very name "Sandra Oh" is an intoxicating semantic collision of innocence and experience. Considering that Oh is such a fresh presence, why is the new hospital drama Grey's Anatomy dominated by the comparatively vanilla Ellen Pompeo?

If Oh is a Sundance vixen, Pompeo is an affable Must-See guest star. If Oh is a rich, glossy Merlot, Pompeo is a flute of Arbor Mist. Oh is the girl who got away, while Pompeo is the girl you grow old with.

I suppose it's not all bad: Pompeo does an admittedly fine job of portraying Meredith Grey, the main character (and the source of the gag-worthy title pun--possibly the most annoying of its kind since Good Will Hunting). Pompeo was inoffensive as Luke Wilson's bubbly love interest in Old School, and she's a reliable wire-monkey surrogate for Renee Zellweger. Edgy, Pompeo is not. But the networks seem convinced that American viewers relate to nervous blondes, and so Pompeo takes her place among countless prime time starlets in phylum Calista.

In Grey's Anatomy, Pompeo plays a first-year surgical intern at Seattle Grace hospital, and a gal who has more in common with Carrie Bradshaw than ER's Carrie Weaver. For instance, in the second episode, Meredith is troubled by the fa ct that an unconscious rape victim in surgery is wearing the same leopard-print loafers as she is. In addition to being a heavy-handed metaphor (Get it? All women are walking in the same shoes!) one wonders why a sleep-deprived doctor would spend so much time ruminating over a bleeding patient's kicks.

The same goes for scenes in which Meredith sucks face with Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey!) in the hospital elevator. Shouldn't scalpels and sutures take precedence over livin' it up while they're goin' down? Despite the show's sporadic attempts to portray Meredith as a committed medical prodigy, I'm not sure I'd want her presiding over my tubal ligation.

The supporting characters are a diverse and well-drawn group. It's a pleasant surprise to see white male doctors in the minority--and no self-congratulatory references to it in the script. Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) is a gifted but pompous surgeon struggling to advance at Seattle Grace. Izzie Stevens (former Roswell hottie Katherine Heigl) is a surgical intern/lingerie model, a combination that would be improbable anywhere but on the idiot box, where sexy meatheads like ER's Goran Visnjic assist with open-heart surgery every week. Still, this show adds an element of realism by making Izzie an object of derision among other, plainer doctors. Her supermodel looks aren't treated as a matter of fact.

George O'Malley (cute Minneapolis native T.R. Knight) gamely assumes the role of "Nonthreatening Male Friend," and appears to be making the jump to roommate in an upcoming episode. The interns' babysitter, senior resident Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) is a rare sympathetic bully who doles out much-needed discipline to the gang. Scenes where these supporting characters flirt, butt heads, or collectively collapse in exhaustion are far more engaging than Meredith Grey's personal drama.

Which brings us back to Sandra Oh, the unlikely marquee name of the whole operation. Oh plays Dr. Cristina Yang, a motorcycle-straddling ice queen with the bedside manner of a Saks mannequin. Her clipped delivery is a welcome respite from all the earnest baby rescuing, and her reluctance to hug patients is a running gag that works. She's the most watchable character here.

So why aren't we watching Yang's Anatomy? Probably because networks like to assume America isn't ready for a show with a distaff straight shooter in the title role. While Grey's is undoubtedly a step up from the David E. Kelly oeuvre in its portrayal of female professionals, its core premise isn't all that original. Thin, ambitious, fair-haired singleton gets easily flustered, flirts with co-worker, and ultimately triumphs over adversity? We've heard this song before, and I'm pretty certain the accompaniment was provided by Vonda Shepherd.

Grey even shares Ally McBeal's tiresome obsession with infants; we see her ogling the newborns in the hospital's nursery more than once. Meanwhile, the awesome Yang is more excited about harvesting organs from a corpse. The show recognizes the value in both archetypes, but the safer bet continually claims the camera time.

The damnable Oh-shortage notwithstanding, Grey's needs doctoring in other areas. The dialogue feels a bit wooden, though it's not surprising when you consider that executive producer Shonda Rimes is best known for penning the script for Crossroads (the unwatchable Britney Spears vehicle, not the vastly superior Ralph Macchio guitar flick). However, Heigl shows surprising heart in a cliché pretty-girl role, and Washington's subplot has already sucked me in like a Flowbee. Plus, the sparkle between Meredith and Derek seems to promise at least two seasons of Carrie/Big-style chase 'n' banter, provided the series lasts that long.

I have a feeling it will. This might not be the most intelligent hospital drama ever, but it's a fun and energetic rendering of the grueling lives of interns. Besides, it's got a plum time slot trailing Desperate Housewives (at least for now). My suggestion to the powers that be is this: Take advantage of the strong cast by doubling the ensemble scenes. Quadruple the Oh, and if that proves impossible, have Dr. Grey grow a pair already.

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