One of the longest-running shows currently airing on network television is ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. Now in its twelfth season, Grey’s has survived drastic changes in character dynamics and cast ever since its debut in 2005. From killing off George to shipping off Izzie to taking out two at once with Mark and Lexie from a plane crash, nobody is safe on Grey’s Anatomy. Nevertheless, the sudden death of Derek Shepherd in Season 11 rocked the fanbase into alternately lambasting showrunner Shonda Rhimes for murdering to pointing out she made a bold move sure to devastate a good portion of the audience. According to Rhimes, however, she wasn’t thinking of the fans at all when it came to McDreamy’s departure from the show.
I’ll be honest; I was very surprised at how large that reaction was. I think it’s because we exist in a bubble here in L.A., and everything is about what’s new, what’s now, what’s next here, and you don’t remember that in the outside world, that show is very, very powerful with the fans.
Her surprising confession to Elle that she hadn’t considered the audience reaction to the death of the male lead that had been present on the show since the first episode of the first season is almost difficult to believe, considering how popular Grey's Anatomy is.
Grey’s fans who kept up with the media did already know that Patrick Dempsey’s contract was due to expire after this year's Season 12. Rumors also indicated he was readying to leave the show, but McDreamy’s early and heartbreakingly permanent departure was one for which many were not entirely prepared. Even for in a series that habitually kills off characters, McDreamy being sent off to that great hospital in the sky in an episode that was neither a premiere nor a finale was a shock to the system.
Shonda Rhimes’ confession about underestimating the audience reaction to Derek’s death may be surprising, but it could be read as a testament to good writing that she was considering the story rather than the fans while constructing an episode that would change the face of the show forever. Few Grey’s fans who had stuck with the series through eleven tumultuous seasons were going to be happy about the death of McDreamy, but writing to fan demands for the circumstances of his departure (or bringing him back from the dead) could have been catastrophic to the narrative.
The myth of “fan service” when it comes to big storylines on primetime shows is one that prominent figures such as Shonda Rhimes do well to debunk, and her surprise at the impassioned outcry against McDreamy’s unceremonious death because she constructed the plot in a bubble is, in some ways, a good thing. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we won’t cry every time we rewatch the episode that saw the death of the man who thoroughly earned the title of McDreamy, but perhaps it will one day be a small consolation.