Grey's Anatomy (Courtesy of ABC)
Over 317 episodes, “Grey’s Anatomy” has tackled everything from mass shootings to plane crashes. But when the writers’ room for the ABC medical drama convened in June, showrunner Krista Vernoff posed a surprising hypothetical for Season 17: What if the show existed in a world without COVID-19?
“I think that people have fatigue of COVID, and I think they turn to our show for relief,” she told them over Zoom.
Then Vernoff challenged the room to change her mind: “Who wants to be brave and convince me that I’m wrong?”
Co-executive producer Lynne E. Litt went first, Vernoff recalled, and said, “’I think it’s the biggest medical story of our lifetimes.’” And then Litt pitched a story. Vernoff said she was also compelled by the doctors on the writing staff: Naser Alazari, who during the show’s hiatus had been working on the frontlines at a clinic, said that as the biggest medical show in the world, “Grey’s Anatomy” had a responsibility to tell the story of COVID-19.
According to Vernoff, he said: “’This is the biggest medical story of our lifetime, and it is changing medicine permanently. And we have to tell this story.’”
“And I said, ‘OK,’” Vernoff recalled.
During that wild week in mid-March, when the WHO declared coronavirus a pandemic, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced from Australia that they had tested positive for COVID-19, and the NBA suspended its season, “Grey’s Anatomy” was one of dozens of TV shows and movies to stop production. Star Ellen Pompeo was an especially “powerful advocate” for the cast and crew, Vernoff said. Not only did no one know how the disease was spread, leading to the panic of those earliest days, but it was thought that people over the age of 60 were especially vulnerable. “Now we know that it is an equal opportunity destroyer,” she said. “But the age of our cast and crew felt significant.”
Vernoff described her conversations with Disney Television Studios from that week as consequential and weighty: “That’s when you know you’re a grown-up for the first time in your life,” she said with a laugh.
“Grey’s Anatomy,” created by Shonda Rhimes, premiered on ABC in March 2005. In recent years, because of its ratings success, it has had long seasons, even for a show on a broadcast network. So when it shut down with four more episodes to complete, the show had filmed 21 of the season’s 25 — and Episode 21 had to serve as the season finale. (Luckily, it felt like one.) For a few months, no one considered going back to work, especially as they began to know people in their lives who had gotten coronavirus, Vernoff said. Then, she was busily working to create “Rebel” for ABC — a show inspired by the life of Erin Brockovich, with Katey Sagal as its lead — which in September received a straight-to-series order. (It will begin production in November.)
But after some time passed, Vernoff told Disney she was going to bring the writers back to figure out the next seasons for “Grey’s Anatomy” and its spinoff, “Station 19” — yes, she’s running three shows — just as real conversations between studios and the unions had started about how to do production safely. Vernoff was talking to her shows’ line producers and directing producers as well.
Something executive producer/director/”Grey’s Anatomy” co-star Debbie Allen said to Vernoff became their mantra. Allen told Vernoff to make a calendar as if they knew when they were beginning production, telling her simply and logically, “’If we don’t start, we’ll never start,’” Vernoff recounted.
“We all just kept quoting her: ‘If we don’t start, we’ll never start!’ And then we had a date to which we were working.”
That date got pushed a few times, but production on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Station 19” began in early September. Vernoff didn’t want to spoil too much about “Grey’s,” which, as it heads into its 17th season, is still one of the most popular shows on TV, averaging for last season more than 15 million cumulative total viewers. But she would say that the season premiere — a crossover event with “Station 19” on Nov. 12 — will be set some weeks into the pandemic. It will flash back to the Time Before, using footage from the episode they were in the middle of when the show shut down. Seattle, after all, where both shows are set, was the early epicenter of the outbreak in the United States.
Vernoff called the COVID-19 protocols “massive”: “It’s social distancing, it’s masks, it’s visors — it’s masks on the actors between takes and during rehearsals.” No one is allowed to speak in the hair and makeup trailer, because the actors’ faces are bare, and that leaves the makeup artists and hair stylists vulnerable. (The actors carry their own bags of makeup for touch-ups, she said.) The actors and anyone who comes within six feet of them are tested three times a week.
They’ve changed the lenses they use on cameras in order to make people standing far apart look closer together. They’re writing fewer scenes in each script, because instead of nine 12-hour days, they’re shooting 10 10-hour days — and everything takes longer, anyway. “It’s just shocking how slowly we’re having to move,” Vernoff said.
The show is going to look and feel different. And if a signature of “Grey’s” is the crowded emergency room, with people rushing around during a disaster, or an operating room full of surgeons and nurses — well, those can’t happen in the same way. “It changes the feeling of the show; it changes the pacing of the show,” Vernoff said. “It is what it is.”
But “Grey’s Anatomy” — with its many millions of viewers, including the new generation of fans who have discovered the show on Netflix — will be back this fall, as they film as safely as they can. And that should be a relief for audiences.
“Everyone was willing to scale the mountain,” Vernoff said. “I keep saying to people, ‘No, no really, we’ve actually reinvented the wheel. We are changing everything everyone has ever understood about how you make television.’
“Everything is changing,” Vernoff said. “And I’m proud of what we’re doing.”
Variety's Kate Aurthur contributed to this post.