It’s hard not to love Grey’s Anatomy, with its complex and sometimes-melodramatic plot and its rich cast of characters, but a recent study has concluded that the show might have an attitude problem that’s rubbing off on its fans.
The paper, first published in Communication Research, concluded that as a show, Grey’s Anatomy “depicts doctors as vultures, eager to transplant organs from their patients,” and that this attitude, when combined with a strong belief that the show is realistic about medicine, was related to a decreased knowledge about organ donation and increased attitudinal barriers to signing up to be an organ donor.
While it may be a bit premature to blame Grey’s Anatomy directly for falling organ donation rates, Vox points out that, “[I]f nothing else, it’s a good reminder that the messages TV imparts, especially on topics where the public’s pre-existing knowledge level is low, have some measure of influence.”
Or, to put it more bluntly, one should not be surprised that shows like Grey’s Anatomy influence public perception on topics about which the public is already under-informed.
It’s easy to see the flaws and discrepancies in television writing when the topic is one that is widely understood and appreciated, but it can be much trickier when the subject is intricate and requires training to fully understand. In those cases, “it certainly wouldn’t hurt for shows to stop portraying doctors performing transplants as vultures, or the system as a whole as corrupt, and instead focus on the massive potential for saving lives that organ donor registration offers.”
The question is, can a decade-old television show like Grey’s Anatomy make the change? Will creator Shonda Rhimes be able to pivot away from the sensationalized (and inaccurate) melodrama that has fueled so many of the show’s cliffhangers and medical emergencies? Or will Grey’s Anatomy, like so many medical dramas before it (House, anyone?) find itself aging out of its audience’s level of naïveté?
We may yet find out. While it’s true that the show just lost a major cast member and that some are questioning the wisdom of continuing it into its second decade, the fact is that Grey’s Anatomy is a long-running hit with a solid fan base. It’s also true that ABC believes strongly enough in the show and in creator Shonda Rhimes’ management to make it the centerpiece of a Shondaland-only night of prime time television.
There’s also the fact that Grey’s Anatomy is hardly running out of plotlines: not only are there several unresolved relationships and tensions left over from season 10, but there are also a host of questions about Doctor Maggie Pierce, about why her mother (Ellis Grey) gave her up for adoption, and about what it means for her to “come home” to work at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital.
With all of this activity and enthusiasm still swirling around as the show barrels toward the fall season, maybe it’s not too much to ask that Grey’s Anatomy has an attitude adjustment around the topic of organ donation. It hardly needs the additional drama, and it might just have a net positive effect.
Grey’s Anatomy airs on ABC on Thursday nights.
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