In the ever-changing TV landscape, one thing remains key for lasting scripted shows: powerful storytelling. And it’s nearly impossible to discuss that without highlighting “Grey’s Anatomy” — the longest-running primetime medical drama in history.
This month, the series created by Shonda Rhimes reaches a giant landmark. On May 26, the procedural will air its 400th episode, which also happens to be its Season 18 finale.
Since its March 2005 debut, “Grey’s Anatomy” has been a watercooler show — and may be one of the last standing, especially in network TV.
“Honestly, I can’t quite get my head around it,” says Krista Vernoff, who stepped in for Rhimes as showrunner in 2017. “I took a break in the middle of the run of the show. I wasn’t here seasons 8 through 13. I look around at the folks who have been here straight through for 400 episodes and my mind is just blown. We are proud. We are happy that the show still means so much to so many people. We are grateful to be employed for so many episodes a year in Los Angeles.”
It’s extremely rare for a TV show to reach 400 episodes — and even more rare for that show to still be at the top of the scripted TV broadcast series list; “Grey’s” tied for fourth place on the most-watched broadcast series in the 2021-22 season.
Stars Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens Jr. continue to steer the ship, as all three have starred in every single season. Others have come and gone — and returned. In fact, for the big 400th episode, Jesse Williams and Sarah Drew will be back as Jackson Avery and April Kepner.
“This accomplishment means time, a great deal of work, consistency, a whole lot of love, and commitment,” says Wilson, who has portrayed Miranda Bailey since day one. “I credit it to an amazing fanbase, a studio and network that never wants to give up on us, and a company of artists of all kinds who care so deeply about the work that we do and give their absolute best in and out of every day with pride.”
Earlier this month, the team in front of and behind the cameras at “Grey’s” came together to celebrate the occasion, with the network surprising the cast and crew at Prospect Studios, where the show films. A plaque engraved with the show’s name and description was also presented and hung outside stage 7.
At the event, Vernoff and Pompeo were joined by Megha Tolia, president of Shondaland; Craig Erwich, Hulu Originals and ABC Entertainment president; Dana Walden, Walt Disney Television entertainment chairman; Jonnie Davis, ABC Signature president; Peter Rice, chairman of Disney general entertainment content, and many others. Rhimes, who now has a massive overall deal with Netflix, made a virtual appearance at the celebration. “Never in all my dreams did I think I would create a show that would still be going strong 400 episodes later,” she said.
Another person who wasn’t sure the medical drama would last this long is Pompeo, who plays the hospital’s fearless leader, Meredith Grey. She’s made numerous comments about the show’s eventual end — a decision she will make together with Vernoff when they deem it right. For now, however, there’s no sign of slowing down.
“The great gift of our show is that it’s a medical show and the great gift of medicine and science is that it always evolves and therefore we will always have new stories to tell,” Vernoff says. “Every season we gather in the writers’ room and we spend a few days pitching the medical. Most of it is based on something we read somewhere that actually happened somewhere in the world.”
She added that the writers are “always amazed” by different happenings occurring at medical facilities around the world. “Our jaws drop and we laugh and we cry and sometimes we scream as we hear the medical horrors that people have survived — or maybe not survived.”
That’s the reason the group is never worried about the possibility of running out of material. “If we are specific in our character work, and we are, then if we repeat a story, it plays differently,” she says, referring to some of the most monumental storylines in the show. “The way Cristina Yang moves through heartbreak is not the same as the way Jo Wilson or Levi Schmitt or Maggie Pierce move through heartbreak. We do a lot of love and longing and heartbreak because it’s a universal language, along with medicine which is also a universal language.”
The medical procedural has spawned two spinoffs: “Private Practice” aired on ABC from 2007 to 2013 and “Station 19,” also showrun by Vernoff, is currently in its fifth season. Though every aspect of the world is different than it was in 2005, the connection “Grey’s” makes with the audience is still there.
“My daughter didn’t exist when we were writing the early years of the show,” Vernoff says. “Now my daughter’s friends are watching those early years of the show as obsessively as folks were watching 18 years ago. My stepson binged 14 seasons of the show in one summer and it changed the course of his life. He decided to go pre-med because of ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ That makes the impact of the show very, very personal to me.”
Wilson noticed just how big the series was in Season 2 when “Grey’s” landed the coveted post-Super Bowl slot in 2006. Rhimes earned an Emmy nom for writing the hour, which is the highest-rated and most-watched episode thus far, reaching nearly 16 million viewers.
“That coveted spot launched us into superstardom as a show,” Wilson tells Variety. “Its staying power gets proven repeatedly through our audiences being drawn into new stories with new characters, even when they may have lost some of their favorite characters over the years.”
When “Grey’s” chose to tackle COVID-19 head-on in Season 17, it gave the team a chance to bring back tons of familiar faces. Patrick Dempsey’s beloved Derek Shepherd, T.R. Knight’s George O’Malley, Giacomo Gianniotti’s Andrew DeLuca, Chyler Leigh’s Lexie Grey, and Eric Dane’s Mark Sloan all appeared in Meredith’s COVID dream as she was hospitalized.
“Our hospital setting creates an environment for storytelling where the truth is stranger than any fiction we can create,” says Wilson. “So, the stories are endless and timeless and timely season after season. I could have never predicted a COVID season, yet we did that. I continue to look forward to the life we get the privilege of mirroring.”
Vernoff says it’s a “magical gift” that the finale just happens to land on the 400th episode, and warns viewers that it will be “intense, emotional and dramatic” — as most of the series has been.
Wilson adds that the finale’s title, “You Are the Blood,” is fitting. “There’s gonna be some blood, and a lot of it!”
Nothing is set in stone when it comes to how long the show will continue, but don’t count it out anytime soon. “There are a million ways to tell stories,” Vernoff tells Variety. “Maybe a million and one.”
From Variety US