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'Grey's Anatomy': Does Patrick Dempsey's exit matter?

Meredith and Derek on

Meredith and Derek on "Grey's Anatomy." Credit: ABC / Karen Neal

"Grey's Anatomy" can't go on.

"Grey's" will go on.

Prime time's long-running soap returns Thursday (8 p.m., ABC/7) without Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) -- killed off at the end of the April 23 episode -- for the first time in 11 seasons, or 242 episodes. Fans are angry. The show's lost a rudder. Ratings may dip. The future is a blur.

But when ABC announces the fall schedule next Wednesday, "Grey's" will be there. The show will go on -- but should the show go on? Compelling arguments can be made for both cases. Let us count the ways why Derek's departure matters -- or doesn't:


Why it doesn't matter: Fans may be furious -- a petition has collected 100,000 signatures to bring Derek back -- but veteran showrunners like Rob Corn and Shonda Rhimes abide by the first rule of soaps, or the This Too Shall Pass dictum, which states that fans will essentially get over that which ails them.

Why it does: Maybe (just maybe) they won't. There is something visceral about this particular backlash. Fans feel betrayed, and betrayal is a hard emotion to shake. They also saw something brutally cavalier in this coup-de-main, as if Rhimes barely even cared about her leading man. Hard to argue with them.


Why it doesn't matter: Derek has essentially been MIA on "Grey's" for months anyway, even the better part of this season, living in Washington, while his wife, Meredith (Ellen Pompeo), has lived in Seattle, and is now part-owner of Grey Sloan Memorial.

Why it does: Even away, or off-screen, Derek has still exerted a gravitational influence on Meredith's life, and her ongoing story. This has been a key part of the narrative push and pull for 11 seasons. Now . . . it's gone.


Why it doesn't matter: "Grey's" is a well-oiled machine and, even at 11, this can still be a smart, engaging show with a good supporting cast and crew. Rhimes knows what she's doing. She will figure this out.

Why it does: Rhimes is a very busy woman, with a lot of other shows in development, even one for FX. And "Grey's" absolutely has lost a step, if last week's creaky, disjointed shamble of an episode ("She's Leaving Home") is even remotely an indication. Meanwhile, Mere has Derek's baby? Death gives way to life? The oldest cliche in the book


Why it doesn't matter: The show is named "Grey's Anatomy," not "Shepherd's Anatomy." This show is about Meredith Grey -- her life, her journey, her ambitions, her emotions. He was subsidiary to those.

Why it does: "Subsidiary" or "the other half?" His yin to her yang? A case could be made for this, and in fact often has been, over 11 seasons.

Why it doesn't matter: There are lots of other good characters and stories to explore, and viewers have seen those all season -- Miranda (Chandra Wilson) and Ben (Jason George), or Webber (James Pickens Jr.) and Catherine Avery (Debbie Allen). "Grey's" is also deft at adding engaging new characters, like Geena Davis's Nicole Herman -- who became blind, couldn't operate anymore, and left the series. OK, nevermind, but gimme a minute. I'll think of other examples...

Why it does matter: Those are SUBSIDIARY characters, none with even close to the magic of MereDer.

Why it doesn't matter: Characters have come and gone on "Grey's." A small list -- Mark Sloan (Eric Dane), Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh), Izzie (Katherine Heigl), Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington), Teddy Altman (Kim Raver), Denny (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

 [And as my smart reader, Liz, tells me -- I left out of this list the most important name of all - George! Sorry, fans. O'Malley -- T.R. Knight -- another beloved "Grey's" fixture  who met the same deus ex machina fate that Shepherd did. There he was, crossing the street, and the next minute... It was brutal and some fans wondered, and still do to this day: What bugged Shonda so much about Knight  that she would give him this kind of send-off? Fans howled, but you will note, "Grey's" survived.) 

Why it does: None even remotely of the stature of Derek. Shepherd had the best lines, best scenes, best hair. When you recall your most vivid "Grey's" memory, Derek was part of it, be it the biggest fight, elevator scene or declaration of love or romantic scene on top of a hill -- the whole future of Merdere happily spreading out before them....

OK, there's my list. The end of the argument? Nah, just the beginning. 


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