When Grey’s Anatomy premiered in 2005, Chris Carmack had just finished playing bad boy teenager Luke Ward on The O.C.. Actor Giacomo Gianniotti actually was a teenager when the doctors at Seattle Grace started hooking up in supply closets. He was about 15 years old when Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) first met Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) at a bar.
I mention Carmack and Gianniotti’s ages because here we are, in Grey’s Anatomy’s 15th season, and a major storyline has featured Link (Carmack) and DeLuca (Gianniotti) vying for Meredith’s affection. A classic TV love triangle—with a twist. By my calculation, Carmack is 10 years younger than Pompeo, and Gianniotti 20. Who cares, you ask? I certainly don’t. But TV has cared for years.
Usually, we see the reverse: an older man romancing a younger woman. You throw a dart at what’s currently airing (or what has aired), and from Don Draper to Andy Sipowicz, you’ll find older men dating and, in many cases, marrying much younger women. It’s a common TV trope, one that Grey’s Anatomy itself regularly partakes in—from its original Meredith/McDreamy coupling to its current Karev (Justin Chambers) and Jo (Camilla Luddington) marriage. No one thinks anything of an older man dating a younger woman.
When it’s reversed, though, it’s usually a major plot point. Think of Younger, a show built on the premise of a woman lying about her age. Liza (Sutton Foster) meets Josh (Nico Tortorella) in the series’ pilot. Their rollercoaster romance is fraught for many reasons, but one constant is their age difference.
If it’s not a major plot point, it’s a cliché used to indicate a promiscuous older woman on the prowl. The sitcom Cougar Town became much more than its title would suggest (and its ill-advised title became a running joke), but its initial premise featured a woman of a certain age (Courteney Cox) going after younger men. The series eventually embraced (and subverted) the cliché with Barb (Carolyn Hennessy), who was a hilarious take on the trope.
The older woman/younger man thing is often played as a desperate cry for help or a completely inappropriate liaison: Think of the Carrie’s (Claire Danes) casual hook-ups on Homeland. Dawson’s Creek began with Pacey (Joshua Jackson) telling his teacher, Ms. Jacobs (Leann Hunley), that he was “the best sex” she’d never had. The O.C. even featured Luke in a scandalous relationship with the much older Julie Cooper (Melinda Clarke), his ex-girlfriend’s mother.
What truly makes what’s happening on Grey’s Anatomy special is that the age difference between Meredith and her two suitors is never mentioned. After several relationships that weren’t right for her, or for the show (see Martin Henderson’s Riggs or Scott Elrod’s short-lived Thorpe), Meredith chose to pursue a relationship with Gianniotti’s Dr. Andrew DeLuca. But before she did, she was worried about the fact that DeLuca had dated her sister, Maggie (Kelly McCreary), and that she didn’t have time for romance with her career and her children. Part of the storyline is steeped in the fact that Meredith is, in many ways, still grieving Derek’s death and not ready to let love in her life. Let me tell you what the issues aren’t: Meredith isn’t worried that she is 20 years older than DeLuca. She’s not concerned that he will want kids and she’s not going to have any more kids. There are no cheap jokes about how he understands Instagram or dating apps or whatever and she does not. They are just two adults navigating a romance while Gianniotti speaks the sexiest Italian ever. (If ever there were a McDreamy 2.0, it’s DeLuca).
What’s even more remarkable is that Pompeo, who turns 50 in November, remains not just at the epicenter of the drama at Grey Sloan Memorial, but she’s also still the romantic lead of the series. The love triangle between Meredith, DeLuca and Carmack’s Link has dominated the season. Women over 40 are sexually desirable! Somebody tell The Bachelor.
In general, I see a subtle shift from some of the tired and sexist tropes that have permeated TV for too long. Over on The Good Doctor, Dr. Melendez (Nicholas Gonzalez) and Dr. Lim (Christina Chang) embarked on a relationship as the second season of the ABC drama drew to a close. Although Chang is a few years older than Gonzalez, the duo’s biggest concern was how their colleagues would view their romance, if their relationship would effect their careers, and how to declare the fact that they were sleeping together to HR.
Grey’s Anatomy has long set TV trends. Fifteen years later, shows like The Good Doctor and NBC’s New Amsterdam are still emulating it. Grey’s pioneered both racially diverse casts and prominently featuring LBGTQ characters. Could the Meredith and DeLuca relationship not only signify a romantic turning point for Meredith, but also for TV in general?
I seriously hope so.
Grey’s Anatomy airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .