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For the first time in a few years, Grey’s Anatomy is heading into the end of its current season with a huge question mark about its future.
The ABC medical drama starring Ellen Pompeo from creator Shonda Rhimes is in its 17th season, with renewal talks having been underway for months. As the series returns for its midseason premiere this week, showrunner Krista Vernoff is handling the show’s uncertain future with two contingencies in mind.
“I’m planning a season and a finale that could function as either a season finale or a series finale,” Vernoff told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday. “I’m planning for both contingencies and it’s hard and it’s not ideal. It’s not where I wish we were.”
Sources tell THR that renewal talks have been underway for months between ABC parent Disney and leading lady Pompeo, who in late 2017 signed a new deal that made her television’s highest-earning actress in a primetime drama series. That pact covered seasons 15 and 16 of the series, with ABC extending the deal to cover season 17 as part of a two-year pickup in 2019. Pompeo, who was vocal in a THR cover story about fighting for the salary she deserved with the hope of inspiring other women in the industry to do the same, is again seeing a salary increase as part of the renewal discussions.
In its 17th season, Grey’s Anatomy remains a massive asset for ABC and Disney. The series ranks as ABC’s No. 1 drama series among total viewers and the all-important advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic. The series is a global phenomenon and broadcast all over the world. It’s also become a cash cow with a rich streaming deal at Netflix, where it ranks as one of the company’s most watched acquired shows.
In addition to starring, Pompeo exec produces both Grey’s and its firefighter-focused spinoff, Station 19. Both dramas are exec produced by Rhimes’ Shondaland and remain the last shows from Rhimes for the network before she decamped for a nine-figure overall deal with Netflix. Rhimes has for years said Grey’s would go on as long as Pompeo wanted to do the series. The prolific producer, who in December launched her first Netflix title with hit Bridgerton, hand-picked Vernoff to take over showrunning duties on Grey’s. Vernoff was the head writer on Grey’s for its first seven seasons and returned as showrunner in season 14. She also oversees Station 19 and has her first solo show, Rebel, due for ABC in April.
Vernoff told THR that she’s asked ABC executives to know about the fate of the series before production on the season 17 ender. “I’ve told them that I have to know before I’m making the finale what we’re making,” she said. “Because there are a couple of character threads that will change. I’ve got plans for both contingencies. Either there will be closure or I will build something in that allows me to have a bit of a cliffhanger and a thread for next season.”
As for growing the Grey’s franchise with another spinoff, Vernoff said the challenges of producing the series during the pandemic have stalled those conversations. “It’s been so complicated and so difficult to come back to production during the pandemic,” she said. “We are on fumes. I don’t really have creative space for imaginings of what might happen next year; I’m trying to get through this season. Once I know if this is the final season or not, I can start to try to imagine other things. But trying to simultaneously plan for the end of the series and the end of the season — if it’s not the end of the series — it’s like breaking two shows. That’s what I’ve got bandwidth for. That, Station 19 and Rebel. That’s enough.”
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