Entertainer of the Year -- EW decides the medical drama's ensemble deserves the title

By Jennifer Armstrong
Updated December 22, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Patrick Dempsey and Ellen Pompeo are snuggled in a rumpled bed, and he is looking at her. And by looking at her, we mean looking at her. It is the look that has sent several fictional lives on Grey’s Anatomy into dramatic tailspins and has given millions of fans endless fantasy material.

And yet, Pompeo is…giggling. Hysterically.

She apologizes, but she cannot stop. A patient Dempsey morphs from smoldering leading man to bemused costar to, finally, stern taskmaster: ”Quiet, close your eyes, and breathe deeply.” She does, and for a take or two, it works — Dempsey, as Dr. Derek Shepherd, can peacefully (well, except for the snoring) observe his lover, Dr. Meredith Grey, as she slumbers. Then her laughter breaks loose again, and Pompeo storms off the bedroom set, shouting, ”I can’t work with him anymore!”

She is careful, later, to explain that this was just a joke (people are a bit sensitive around the set of the ABC hit these days). But emotions do run high — and fast — when it comes to Grey’s Anatomy. Its myriad moods change from sexy to funny to dramatic to silly, making for an intoxicating thrill ride that is as unpredictable as it is unmissable.

Since their first half-season in 2005, Seattle Grace’s improbably hot surgical staffers have gone from midseason replacements to bona fide stars. And now, having relocated to the toughest time slot on TV, Grey’s has become nothing short of a phenomenon, luring an average of 21.4 million fans every week and consistently topping Thursday-night behemoth CSI in the 18-49 demographic. How did they do it? ”The characters are so human,” ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson says. ”Life is messy, it’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s dramatic, and this show captures that.”

For maintaining that deft dramatic balance, for performing a powerful emotional alchemy that transforms the hospital-show genre into something exciting rather than exhausted, and for casting perhaps the most telegenic assemblage of actors in the last decade — for all of these reasons, we have chosen the cast of Grey’s Anatomy as our Entertainers of the Year.

Grey’s makes good use of familiar soapy tropes — on-again/off-again couples, tangly love triangles, gratuitous shirtless scenes — but it never devolves into cliché. You can say the Preston Burke-Cristina Yang romance is nothing more than the old opposites-attract shtick…but you can’t say you’ve seen the old boy-gets-tremor-in-hand-and-girl-must-help-cover-it-up-to-prove-her-love story too many times. And just before the will they or won’t they? moves into eye-rollingly tiresome territory, most of these couples do — sometimes successfully, oftentimes not. The triangles keep evolving. And nobody, especially our put-upon title character, is above making some astoundingly bad (but incredibly entertaining) judgment calls. ”We don’t make apologies for anything,” says Chandra Wilson, 36, who plays the hard-nosed, softhearted Dr. Miranda Bailey. ”We’re not the morality police.”

That attitude allows the show to take risks: making Derek’s estranged, cheating ex-wife, Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh, 39), a likable character; letting sensitive Dr. Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl, 28) fall for a heart-transplant patient (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, 40), only to kill him accidentally and inherit his $8 million; consummating the crush that sweet intern George O’Malley (T.R. Knight, 33) harbored on mixed-up Meredith. That fleeting Meredith-George liaison ”was shocking — even for me, personally,” says Pompeo, 37. (Knight, along with Walsh and Heigl, declined to participate in this story.) ”I’ve been kissing Patrick since I met him, but I was like, No, that’s my T! I can’t make out with him!” Adds Sandra Oh, 35, who plays tightly wound Dr. Yang, ”When we saw that for the first time at a table read, we were like, Nooooo!” That’s precisely the reaction creator/exec producer Shonda Rhimes, 36, was hoping for. ”When people say they hate what’s happening, and then go on to describe in detail everything they hate, I know they’re really paying attention and have strong feelings about the characters,” she says. ”That’s a good sign.”

True enough: Few other shows can inspire so much fan ardor with such flawed characters. ”You see them when they’re not nice, but by the end of the episode they’re doing something heroic,” says James Pickens Jr., 54, who plays chief of surgery (and former lover of Meredith’s mom, Ellis) Richard Webber. ”The show takes you through these murky waters of these people’s lives, and you come back because you want to see them heading north again.” Pompeo certainly spends a good part of her press time defending her boy-crazy, whiny alter ego. ”If Meredith Grey were a man,” she insists, ”everyone would say, Oh, how interesting he is!” But recent addition Eric Dane — a.k.a. Mark ”McSteamy” Sloan — would like to see Pompeo’s broke-up-a-marriage story line and raise her a no-discernible-redeeming-qualities character. ”Dr. Sloan’s the most flawed,” Dane, 34, contends. ”But he’s just trying to cope with his issues, and using some pretty interesting tools to cope.”

He needn’t worry too much. The show’s audience has easily embraced new additions like Dane, Walsh, and Sara Ramirez, 31 (brash orthopedic surgeon Callie Torres). The secret, Rhimes says, is to make sure they’re integral to developing story lines and to give them a hell of an entrance — like Sloan stepping out of the shower wearing a cloud of steam and not much else, which Rhimes calls ”one of my favorite moments ever.”

The weekly medical cases are just as satisfyingly over-the-top, from the grotesque (kid impaled by tree), to the naughty (a couple stuck together mid-coitus), to the grippingly personal (Bailey’s husband in brain surgery while she’s giving birth), to the spectacular (an explosive lodged inside a patient’s chest). All of them, of course, resonate metaphorically with the doctors’ own struggles. ”To have these deep, disturbing medical cases and also have us laughing about our love interests is really powerful,” says Ramirez. Are the medical maladies ridiculous sometimes? Sure — but they’re rarely boring. ”Real doctors do not have this many amazing cases,” says Justin Chambers, 36 (Dr. Alex Karev), ”but we need to be appointment television every week.”

That said, being appointment television brings with it certain rites of passage — and this fall, the cast experienced a big one: the behind-the-scenes scandal going public. An on-set blowup between Dempsey, 40, and Isaiah Washington, 43, received almost instant, worldwide press; the attention increased exponentially when it leaked out that Washington had reportedly used a homophobic slur during the dustup — and 10 days later Knight confirmed he is gay via a statement to People magazine. At that point, everyone on Grey’s experienced firsthand the dark side of the hit-TV-show spotlight. ”We learned that we have to watch what we say,” explains Washington (who plays the sexy, aloof Dr. Burke). ”We have to make sure we’re more accountable.” Dempsey says getting past the flap has strengthened the cast’s bonds: ”I think the explosion really healed the show…. No one passed the buck, and everyone owned up to the situation and moved on.”

Fans have remained loyal, and the ratings haven’t suffered. Now all Rhimes and Co. need to do is figure out how to keep our hearts pounding, while also moving the show beyond twisted romantic geometry. ”I’m more interested in what happens when a couple stays together,” Oh says. ”I’m thinking of, like, The Sopranos, with Tony and Carmela’s relationship — that sort of thing really allows you to move with your character.” Rhimes agrees: ”I hate when characters keep breaking up for no reason.” She promises the surgeons will progress, both professionally (”in Grey’s Anatomy time, they’ve only been interns for six or seven months”) and, more importantly, with the fascinating and maddening character development viewers have grown dependent on. ”I like things to happen,” she says. ”I like characters who mess up. And I want to make this a show that I want to watch.” Well, Ms. Rhimes, you have extremely good taste.