When the 19th season of “Grey’s Anatomy” premieres on ABC on Oct. 6, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) will be front and center in the episode, as she’s been since the series made its debut on March 27, 2005. Meredith is now the chief of surgery at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, and she’s been charged with rebuilding its surgical intern program after it was dismantled last season following a patient’s death. Five of those interns will be new characters this season.
Yet as Variety reported over the summer, Pompeo (and Meredith) will soon be taking a step back, and will appear in only eight of this season’s episodes — though all the episodes will still have Meredith’s voiceover at the beginning and end. Along with the development she’s shepherding at her production company Calamity Jane, Pompeo is starring in and executive producing an as-yet untitled limited series at Hulu about a couple who adopt a child they think is an 8-year-old with dwarfism — but then things begin to go awry within their family.
“She has so many projects in development as a producer, and the Hulu project as an actress,” said “Grey’s Anatomy” showrunner Krista Vernoff in an interview. “And she’s really excited to spread her wings, and we want to support her in that — while she will always be in the fabric of our show.”
Vernoff learned last spring that Pompeo wanted to reduce her role on the show’s 19th season, which was when she and the writers’ room decided to inject “Grey’s Anatomy” with a slew of actors — taking “a big, bold swing,” as Vernoff put it — who are new to the show as series regulars. Harry Shum Jr., Adelaide Kane, Alexis Floyd, Midori Francis and Niko Terho will play the interns, who are central to the plot of the premiere episode.
Vernoff hopes that by injecting the show with these freshmen cast members, “Grey’s” fans will be reminded of its early years. “The blood of the show — the lifeblood, the early success — was about the impact of trying to become a surgeon when you have no idea what you’re doing.”
Vernoff pointed out how many seasons the initial cast of “Grey’s Anatomy” — Pompeo, Sandra Oh, Katherine Heigl, T.R. Knight and Justin Chambers — remained interns, during those years when the show’s ratings were in the stratosphere. “And there was a reason for that,” she said. “We needed them to be green. We needed them to be new at this, and to be able to make mistakes that were profound and impactful — not just on their own lives, but on the lives of their patients. And adding five new series regular interns does that for us.”
Still, the show is called “Grey’s Anatomy” for a reason. Were Pompeo to decide to keep playing Meredith in a limited role, or to leave the show entirely, could it continue?
Vernoff hesitated before answering. “I think that this show has legs,” she said. “I think that Ellen is extraordinary, and she’s been an extraordinary center of this show for a really long time. And if her career takes her in another direction, I believe that we’ve got a show here with a lot of amazing characters that our fans love. And this new class of interns is really exciting.”
To emphasize her point, Vernoff said it again: “And I believe that the show has legs!”
With Meredith playing such a key role in the season premiere, though, what in the world is going to take her away from Grey Sloan? There’s no suggestion of any plot development that might cause Meredith to leave.
Vernoff would offer only a hint, but it’s a big one. “When you’ve got a woman who has a job that she loves, a career that she loves, a man that she loves, what is the thing that might take her out of the main storytelling?” she asked rhetorically. “And my answer to that is: her kids. Something happens with her kids that changes the course of her plans for her life. And as a mother, I resonate with that.”
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