'Grey's Anatomy' vs. 'ER': How did the documentary-style episode stack up?
Image Credit: Bob D’Amico/ABC; NBCLast night’s Grey’s Anatomy was a faux documentary episode, and that for me screamed one thing: ER. If we’re going to go ’90s doctor shows (oh please, let’s), Grey’s more closely resembles Chicago Hope — melodrama, metaphor, more absurd patients, a slower pace. But going documentary-style for an episode is so classically ER in my mind that I can’t help but compare the two.
ER‘s documentary episode was “Ambush,” the fourth-season premiere that is probably better remembered as the show’s live episode. (If you’re wondering, yes, it really does hold up.) Like Grey’s, it followed up on a traumatic incident a character might otherwise be reluctant to talk about, in this case Marc’s assault from the end of season 3. The confessional style lends itself to emotional revelations, and ER used that to more surprising effect than Grey’s did: Meredith and Cristina’s tag-team interview was rich and sad and gorgeously acted, but it didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t know already. Cristina is in agony, and Meredith is incredibly grateful to be her best friend, which is kind of a strange emotional situation. But I don’t know that a documentary format got us any real mileage there that the show’s regular format wouldn’t have been able to express.
On the other hand, ER‘s episode gave us a reckoning moment from Marc that only someone from the outside was able to provoke. He wasn’t recovered psychologically from his assault, and he’d snapped, pulling a gun on some guys at the El station. Once the documentary crew was following him, his facade of calmness cracked even further, but this time, it was in front of people he knew. The real turning point came when he bargained with the crew: He’d tell them about his attack if they promised not to use footage of Carter’s elderly patient dying. Marc had to admit that there really was something going on, that he really did need to acknowledge, even briefly, that this was a thing. The process of being observed changed his internal understanding.
ER‘s super-realistic style from its early seasons made the documentary style much more effective. Grey’s, much as I love it, is a soap, and trying to get at the “real” aspects of it just drives home how absurd a lot of it is. ER‘s messiness and chaos felt amplified and glorified in “Ambush,” but Grey’s calling card of emotional extravagance wasn’t heightened in “These Arms of Mine.” It was dampened.
Which isn’t to say it wasn’t a good episode. It was. Grey’s is having a total renaissance this season, and this episode can easily be counted as part of its upward climb. But in terms of ambition and storytelling, ER comes out ahead.
Dig into those archives, PopWatchers. What do you remember about “Ambush”? And did you think Grey’s held its own?