There is something hopeful about the 2020 return of Grey’s Anatomy. The medical drama has premiered a new season on ABC each fall since 2005. And, in the most uncertain year in recent memory, Grey’s Anatomy will keep up that streak with its season 17 premiere on Thursday, November 12. Despite production delays due to the real-life threat of COVID-19, the story of Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) will continue.
Grey’s is a tale of industry-best doctors overcoming insurmountable medical odds in a major metropolitan hospital. And no matter how escapist the series is, it can’t avoid the reality of what life would look like for the professionals of Grey Sloan Memorial. That is why you can expect to juggle two very different timelines this season on Grey’s Anatomy.
Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff confirmed that season 17 will open five weeks into the pandemic, Variety reports. This means it will be roughly late April or early May 2020 in Grey’s Anatomy world, since preventative lockdowns around the country began in March. Vernoff was initially reluctant to add a subject as heavy as a massively deadly real-life virus to her traditionally light and romance-driven drama, she told Variety in October. “I think that people have fatigue of COVID, and I think they turn to our show for relief,” Vernoff recalled telling her writers room at the beginning of production. But, writers like Naser Alazari, a doctor on staff who spent hiatus on the frontlines of a clinic, changed his boss’ mind.
“This is the biggest medical story of our lifetime, and it is changing medicine permanently. And we have to tell this story,” he reportedly said. As we’ve seen in the trailer for Grey’s Anatomy season 17, the series is no longer afraid of this part of the IRL timeline. Meredith, Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams), and Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd) can all be seen in the clip trying to complete medical miracles in full PPE.
As the doctors of Grey Sloan battle the virus, Grey’s Anatomy will also flash back to the immediate aftermath of season 16. The footage Grey’s shot before production was shut down in March will be used for this earlier timeline, where the coronavirus was not yet a threat.
Few characters are more integral to that pre-COVID storyline than on-the-rocks couple Teddy Altman (Kim Raver) and Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd). In the season 16 finale, “Put on a Happy Face,” Owen receives the worst possible accidental voicemail from Teddy hours before their wedding. The message is a recording of Teddy and Thomas Koracick’s (Greg Germann) final, explicit hookup. Owen cancels the wedding in the closing minutes of “Happy Face,” but does not tell Teddy why he did so.
“We didn't mean to end right on Teddy just doing the worst thing possible,” Teddy’s portrayer, Kim Raver, told Entertainment Weekly ahead of the season 17 premiere. “It's so true to Grey's Anatomy that people are messy. Everyone is so messy. And I think that that is really the beautiful thing of the show is that they have their shining moments and then they have their very ugly human moments.”
Although Grey’s will lean into its COVID-based timeline, don’t expect to lose those “human moments.” As writer/executive producer Vernoff said during a Television Academy panel this July, “Our conversations have been constantly about, 'How do we keep alive humor and romance while we tell these really painful stories?'”