By EW Staff
Updated August 18, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Scott Garfield

9-10 PM · ABC · Returns Sept. 27

Listen up, Grey’s Anatomy fans. Patrick Dempsey, like his McDreamy alter ego, feels your pain. ”The second half of the season went in a direction that was not satisfying to a lot of people.” Indeed, he could be talking about that catastrophic ferry crash, Meredith’s near-death experience, or Gizzie. But any grousing over plotlines was quickly overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the dismissal of Isaiah Washington (Preston Burke). Here, too, McDreamy is sympathetic. ”I think the whole thing is sad, a tremendous waste,” says Dempsey. ”The character of Burke was exceptional, and it’s too bad that character is no longer on TV.”

Coming off a year that would have given even poor, dead Denny heart palpitations, Grey’s enters its fourth season facing the same hurdle that Lost and Desperate Housewives did last year: Can it rebound after a media drubbing? It’s reassuring to hear creator Shonda Rhimes say all the right things. ”My mandate for this year has been, I want fun! I want sexy! I want great surgeries!” says Rhimes, who’ll continue to exec-produce Grey’s while launching its spin-off, Private Practice.

Well, it won’t be fun for everyone. After failing an exam in the May finale, George O’Malley (T.R. Knight) repeats his surgical internship — a development he finds demoralizing, especially when he has to answer to one of his pals. He will make a new friend in Meredith’s half sister, Lexie Grey (Reunion‘s Chyler Leigh), an intern who’s assigned to Cristina (Sandra Oh). Meanwhile, Callie (Sara Ramirez) struggles with both her new gig supervising her husband’s friends as well as her suspicions that he and Izzie (Katherine Heigl) have seen each other out of their scrubs. And Alex (Justin Chambers) reunites with Ava (Elizabeth Reaser), a.k.a. Jane Doe, the lovesick patient with the new face. Just don’t plan on a surprise return from Washington. ”The finale finished the character in a way that is real,” says Rhimes.

As for the series’ central couple, Dempsey is eager to resolve Derek and Meredith’s status. ”The writers were victims of their own success,” he says. ”They had confusion about how to resolve the dynamic because the longing is what made it so interesting. But that doesn’t sustain itself over four or five seasons.” Dempsey adds that since filming began in July, ”there is more receptivity and collaborating. We’re able to ask [the writers], ‘What are you trying to achieve? How can I help you get there?”’ So what are they trying to achieve? Rhimes only offers this hint: ”We will see a bottom-line answer this season, and it will be a bit surprising.”

What’s not surprising: After dominating headlines last season, Rhimes would like her show to fly under the radar for a while. (However, she’s happy to bask in the attention that 10 Emmy nominations bring.) ”It was a tough year for all of us,” Rhimes admits. ”But our cast really rose to the occasion…. I don’t know that we do quiet and low-key, but no, we’re not going to be crashing ferry boats anytime soon.” —Lynette Rice