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How 'Grey's Anatomy' got its groove back

After some shaky seasons, ABC’s doctor dramedy is better than ever.

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Grey’s Anatomy suffered a hell of an adolescence: An instant hit when it debuted in 2005, the show had phenomenally addictive early days that gave way to some very awkward in-between years full of ill-conceived guest-star arcs (Brooke Smith’s no-nonsense Dr. Erica Hahn? Melissa George’s nutso Dr. Sadie Harris?), ghost sex, and extraneous moping. This season, however, something miraculous happened — the show didn’t just survive through its seventh season, it got better. Way better.

Its epic season finale last spring, in which a gunman roamed the halls of Seattle Grace, killing or seriously wounding several characters, marked a rite of passage. What could’ve been classic shark-jumping instead sparked renewal. Since then, Grey’s has gotten funnier, more mature, sexier, and braver. Here, we examine the thriving vital signs of the healthier-than-ever doctor soap.

1 IT’S TAKING RISKS

Derek (Patrick Dempsey) isn’t the only one who came out of the shooting with a new penchant for thrill seeking; the show itself has taken plenty of chances this season, from small choices (making an Alzheimer’s study a major plot element) to big episodes. Case in point: the documentary-style hour that played like a TV special on the hospital, Seattle Medical: Road to Recovery, which caught our favorite docs in a completely different light and told as much with what it didn’t show (guest star Mandy Moore’s death) as with what it did. ”It was surprising, even for me,” creator — executive producer Shonda Rhimes says, ”but it really worked.” Next up, a musical episode on March 31, featuring the cast singing the soft rock Grey’s has made famous (think the Fray’s ”How to Save a Life”). ”I wanted to do this ever since we started, because I’m a musical-theater geek,” Rhimes says. ”It seemed fun, so why not try it?” That said, she knows her show’s limits: ”There are no dance numbers. There’s no singing and dancing in the halls.”

2 ITS CHARACTERS CONTINUE TO GROW

Perhaps the shooting’s best after-effect — besides eliminating some dud characters — was traumatizing the core remaining cast members into major change. It was a much-needed infusion of interest after six seasons of Cristina (Sandra Oh) being brittle and driven and Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) being dark and twisty. Now Meredith is struggling to conceive a child and Cristina’s back at work after coming unglued from PTSD. ”It was like hitting an amazing reset button,” Rhimes says. ”I felt like Meredith emotionally aged, like, 20 years. Cristina regressed. It was so great to get to that moment where Cristina Yang is on the dock holding the fish, which I have framed on my desk now. Because to me it’s a picture of healing, an amazing moment.”

3 NEW ROMANCES ARE SPARKING, AT LAST!

Love at Seattle Grace has been reaching epidemic levels not seen since the show’s early days. Better yet, none — none! — of the new couples turn our stomachs. (Good news for an audience still scarred by that Gizzie debacle.) This is the flirty Grey’s we fell for seven seasons ago: Teddy (Kim Raver) marrying chronically ill patient Henry (the infinitely appealing Scott Foley), Stark (Peter MacNicol, sympathetic even as the ultimate jerk) shocking April (Sarah Drew) by asking her out, Jackson (Jesse Williams) and Lexie (Chyler Leigh) hitting the shower. And it’s about time, especially for man-candy Jackson. ”The writers would say, ‘For the love of God, when is he gonna get some?”’ Rhimes recalls. ”I kept saying, ‘No, keep his pants on.’ It’s a present — we had to save it.”

4 ITS FUNNY BONE IS INTACT

After a few seasons filled with angsty wallowing, the Seattle Gracers finally found their wit again. Just watch one of the doctors’ patented gallows-humor-filled lunchroom scenes, Chandra Wilson’s wordily indignant monologues, or almost any given exchange between Cristina and Meredith about baby issues for proof. (Cristina on Meredith’s negative pregnancy test: ”Pee on a bunch of sticks. Don’t let the one stick win.”) Rhimes attributes the change to the current cast and crew’s chemistry: ”We’re having fun,” she says. ”Every last one of the actors wants to be here and loves their job. Every one of the writers wants to be here. And that does matter, because we write the mood into the scripts.”

5 A NEW LOVE TRIANGLE IS STEALING THE SHOW

Despite all the hot new couples, no relationship has been more fun to watch than that of Arizona (Jessica Capshaw), pregnant girlfriend Callie (Sara Ramirez), and baby-daddy/best friend Mark (Eric Dane, finally getting his due). ”They all have amazing comic timing but can also be dramatic,” Rhimes says of the trio’s uniquely entertaining dynamic. ”I literally say you could have the Mark-Callie-Arizona show.” That’s one we would watch — if we weren’t having such a good time watching Grey’s again.