It’s been on the air for nearly 20 seasons and currently sits as the longest-running hospital drama of all time, the Shonda Rhimes breakout hit, Grey’s Anatomy follows the career of Dr. Meredith Grey all the way from intern to attending surgeon. Portrayed by Ellen Pompeo, Grey serves as the series’ protagonist and resident narrator, and while hers is the main voiceover for the series, Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t shy away from the use of multiple narrators to tell the story.
Throughout its ongoing run, the drama centers on Meredith Grey’s perspective of the world and life between hospital walls. Her narration saturates the beginning and end of each episode, and provides an introspective look at the day-to-day challenges of her career, with real-life ordeals peppered into the narrative.
She begins each episode with a burning question, thought or assertion that sets a tone for what’s to come over the next forty some-odd minutes of screentime. In every episode, there’s a lesson to be learned or a notion to be challenged; the audience doesn’t just follow Grey, but grows and learns with her. We overcome ordeals and trauma as she does. Meredith not only narrates the top, tail, and theme of each episode but presents it as if telling the story of how she came to be who she is at the time of telling it. By the end of each chapter, she tells us how she came away changed or wiser from the experience.
Most series title their premier as a pilot, but Grey’s Anatomy broke from the bland tradition in the most apropos way and named the first episode after the Beatles’ song, A Hard Day’s Night. As if to illustrate the interns’ first shift at Seattle Grace, the near-sleepless 48-hour stint serves as a jumping-off point for the series and introduces us to the core cast. We’re given a glimpse into what it’s like to start out as an intern and all of the gritty details that come along with it.
Throughout the pilot, the audience is given allusions to how prominent our main character’s mother is in the medical field and elusive hints to the legacy she left.
For most of the episode, the audience is left to wonder why Meredith shies away from the mere mention of her mother, and we’re left to assume that she’s simply attempting to distance herself from the senior Grey’s illustrious shadow. But in a heart-wrenching twist, the narration comes full circle, and by the end of the episode, we come to learn that the story being told isn’t directed at us, but at Merideth’s mother who has Alzheimer’s.
It’s a heartbreaking blow to the audience that puts the events of the episode into an uncanny perspective, but it wasn’t initially planned that way.
Narration Made the Story
Meredith’s voice not only welcomes the audience into her world but shows them her innermost thoughts and feelings; it’s become a staple for the long-enduring series that carried forward throughout nearly two decades of airtime.
It’s become nearly impossible to imagine the series without it.
While most series that use a narrator plan their method of story-telling around the voice-over, that wasn’t the case with Grey’s Anatomy. After filming had finished for the pilot, and the first episode was on the cutting room floor, Shonda Rhimes noticed something was missing.
She felt that there was a human element needed.
In a well-placed effort to tie everything together, and bring the story a much-needed sense of clarity, Rhimes decided to add Ellen Pompeo’s voice-over after the fact. While her narration is usually limited to the beginning and end of each episode, it never fails to drive home the events of each chapter to Grey’s Anatomy viewers and keep us in line with Meredith’s point of view.
That being said, Meredith isn’t the only narrator we hear in the enduring series.
Many, Many Narrators
As difficult as it is to imagine the series without the narration of Dr. Meredith Grey at the beginning and end of each episode, she’s not our only narrator. In fact, we have at least nine.
Throughout Grey’s Anatomy, we grow to love (or hate) the supporting cast members. As they come into their own over the course of the series, some stay and some go, but their presence remains one of the deepest facets of the plot. They’re not just supporting roles – they’re friends, colleagues and rivals. They drive the story forward in their own unique ways and play off of each other to create a cohesive narrative that contrasts Meredith’s own. Most of the supporting cast members even narrate the odd episode here and there to add an inside look at who they are as individuals. Each of these characters is still the lead role in their own story, and through the use of their own distinct voiceovers, the audience gets to catch a glimpse of who they are on the inside and not only watch them grow but see how they perceive Meredith as well.
A Potentially Dark (Unreliable) Narration
As viewers, we know why Grey’s Anatomy has such a turbulent storyline; it’s a drama. But say we were to inhabit the same world as Meredith Grey, what then? If the events of Grey’s Anatomy were told to you firsthand, would you believe the story outright, or take it with a grain of salt? In the real world, as hectic as any given hospital may be, nothing is that over-the-top, and it stands to reason that at least some of the narrative is embellished.
Or, a much darker and grounded truth is behind it.
Drama or not, Grey’s Anatomy is still a medical show, and the underlying plot device is equally based in medical reality. Knowing that Meredith was found to have the genetic markers for Alzheimer’s, just like her mother, it’s far more likely that the story comes full circle from the pilot episode, and a much older Merideth is telling the story to her children but is now herself suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Almost 20 Years Later
Serving as Shonda Rhimes’ first breakout hit, Grey’s Anatomy has been on the air since 2005 and reached the official milestone of longest-running hospital drama to date – currently closing in on its 19th season. It’s been the springboard for multiple acting careers and become something of a cultural institution for multiple generations of fans who have grown up watching it. The series has been nominated for 39 awards over it’s nearly two-decade runtime, but only received five actual awards – none of which went to the lead.
Even though Ellen Pompeo has been the star and focus of the series for nearly 20 years, and become one of the highest-paid female actors because of it, she’s never won an award for her long-standing lead role.
Kim Handysides is an award-winning voice artist, coach and thought leader in her industry. Her narrations have been heard on Discovery, Netflix, and the major networks, in iMax, the White House and the Smithsonian.