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Latest Season Of 'Grey's Anatomy' Shows Americans What It's Like To Fight Pandemic


Medical dramas are the bread and butter of prime-time TV, so how are they handling the pandemic?


CHANDRA WILSON: (As Miranda Bailey) The entire east wing is now a COVID ward. We've converted whole floors into negative pressure rooms. Severe patients go to this special COVID ICU. So far, we have enough ventilators.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Well, what about PPE for the staff?

WILSON: (As Miranda Bailey) We are reusing what we have, but we need more.

CORNISH: ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" is set in Seattle, where the real-life COVID outbreak first captured attention in the U.S. And its new season pivoted to tell the story from April 2020 from the point of view of medical workers on the front lines.


ELLEN POMPEO: (As Meredith Grey) Marvin Lindstrom, 83. He was fine yesterday, became hypoxic an hour ago. That's the fourth patient I've lost today. And they're all dying alone. Welcome back, Richard.

CORNISH: Much of the plot centers on the isolation - isolation felt by doctors, by patients, by their families, the isolation that keeps COVID out of sight and abstract to some of us who are trying to hold in our minds the risk and toll of a disease that took the lives of a record 2,800 people yesterday alone. Now, I know what you're thinking. Television is supposed to be an escape. And that's what showrunner Krista Vernoff thought as well. We asked her and Dr. Naser Alazari, a senior surgical adviser, to talk about that balance.

So when the pandemic hit, at what point did someone have to pick up the phone and say, I think we need to put this on the show?

KRISTA VERNOFF: Well, we were still in production on Season 16 when the pandemic hit. And the first phone call was, I think we have to shut down the show (laughter). And when we reconvened as a writers' room, the conversation started as, do we put this on the show? Are we putting this on the show?

CORNISH: Why? Why would that be a debate?

VERNOFF: Well, the debate for me was, do people come to "Grey's Anatomy" for escapism at this point? I spent the whole quarantine watching "Schitt's Creek" and "The Good Place," like, totally escapist comedy because the news was so dire. And so I said, I'm sort of 51-49. I'm voting no pandemic. And I said, who wants to convince me that I'm wrong? And one by one, most of the room raised their hands.

Naser particularly was persuasive because he had been on the front lines of it, and he said, this is the biggest medical story of our time. It's permanently changing medicine, and we have a responsibility to do it. We're the biggest medical show in the world. We have to tell these stories.

CORNISH: Dr. Alazari, you get to the writers' room, and you hear the boss say, I don't really know. This is a bit much. Do you freak out? I mean, kind of what goes through your head when you raise your hand to say, actually, this is something you need to approach?

NASER ALAZARI: We were kind of, like, returning into this fog. It was thick fog. We did not know what's happening. I felt like definitely we have to say that, like, you know - tell stories about this because this disease is our zeitgeist.

CORNISH: You know, you get small details, muffled speech behind the mask - I don't know how you mic'd (ph) everyone, but people are wearing masks for a good deal of the time. But then there are scenes maybe where someone's mask is hanging to the side or - like, how did you decide to draw the line - right? Because at a certain point, what's real enough, and what actually gets in the way of storytelling?

VERNOFF: That is an ongoing conversation, and it's always threading a needle. I think that Naser would tell you he wishes that all the doctors were wearing masks in every scene all the time because of best practices modeling. One of the things that I have had to do is find places where the doctors can go outside and get some air and maintain social distance and take off their mask and get a breath.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) No, I'm not symptomatic.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Go home, Tom (ph). Don't stop at the store. Just go home. Stay home. Try not to infect anyone else. Maybe you should put your mask back on.

VERNOFF: That is designed to let the audience see the actors' faces, and we've tried to do that in ways that feels as responsible as we can be and still make a TV show.

ALAZARI: And, Krista, that's like the realism of what's happening in the real lives of doctors. Wearing a mask for 10 hours or 12 hours can be really encumbering. So you have to find, like, a way where you can, you know, take a little break from it in a safe environment for yourself and to protect other people.

CORNISH: Krista Vernoff, you've given your main character COVID. How did you guys decide what those symptoms would be? What - again, walking that line between narrative and what people have actually learned about the disease at this point.

VERNOFF: We talked about a bunch of stuff early on, and then scripts started to come in. And the writers had, you know, Meredith being intubated, like, in Episode 2 at the end of - and I was like, no (laughter). You guys, you got to slow your roll. Like, we've got somewhere to go. We've got to go somewhere. So the bigger challenge is finding ways to have humor and romance exist in the show while Meredith Grey is in the bed fighting COVID.

CORNISH: But I mean, did you - was there a whiteboard with, like, a list of symptoms? You know, kind of like, where do you start?

VERNOFF: Yeah, there's a whiteboard with a list of symptoms. There's also two or three doctors in the writers' room at any given time. So a lot of times the doctors will pitch something, and probably more often, one of the writers goes, well, could we start with a physical collapse? (Laughter). Like, could she just collapse in the parking lot before she shows any symptoms? Could you see how that could be viable?


POMPEO: (As Meredith Grey) When are you going to let me out of here?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I'm going to let you out of here when I'm convinced you won't collapse again.

POMPEO: (As Meredith Grey) Well, that was four days ago. I feel fine. I think you should just release me with supplemental oxygen, so I can go quarantine in a hotel. Let's give the room to someone who really needs it.

VERNOFF: And then they go, yeah. If we say this, that and this medically, that's absolutely viable. And we go, great. Because we want the drama. We want the storytelling. And we won't do it the dramatic way we want to do it, if it can't be authentic to the disease. So rather than build the illness the way you have seen it, we're building the story the way we want to tell it and filling in the medical blanks.

CORNISH: You also have to depict treatments. How, Dr. Alazari, did you think about that? Like, kind of what is on offer, so to speak, for any given patient who goes into a hospital - right?

ALAZARI: Thank you for bringing this up. This is a very, like, thin line that we've been walking. And I feel - because, you know, even the treatment is so politicized, just like the disease itself. I mean, we were reviewing these and trying to make sure that what we portray is what's happening in actuality.

CORNISH: What is the story you're trying to tell about the pandemic to a mass audience right now, one that you think, looking back on, we're going to remember?

VERNOFF: The impact of the pandemic on the health care workers. Our health care workers are not trained for war, and this has been like a war. And our show is now airing. We've been making these episodes for months, and now we're airing at this moment when hopefully we can have an impact. We have hundreds of thousands of teenage viewers who are so often invisible spreaders. They're not wearing masks. We have an opportunity to really show through these characters who everyone has been watching for so many years and loves so much, the human cost of the people on the front lines, fighting the disease, fighting to save our lives and risking their own lives without any training for this.

CORNISH: Krista Vernoff, showrunner for ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and "Station 19," and Dr. Naser Alazari, surgeon and medical consultant to her writers' room. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.