Oh, Doctor?

Grey’s Anatomy is D.O.A., but Sandra Oh survives the carnage.

Grey’s Anatomy, the midseason medical drama that premiered last night on ABC in the golden spot right after Desperate Housewives (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET), will need defibrillator paddles applied to its thorax, stat, if it hopes to survive the season. (Hey, it wouldn’t be a review of a doctor show without a tortured medical metaphor in the lead!) But the nearly inevitable demise of this warmed-over combo of ER, Sex and the City, and The Paper Chase may yet lead to something good. Perhaps, like a selfless organ donor, the show will pass on the best parts of itself to another show that can really use them. And the most functional organ on Grey’s Anatomy—its delightfully bilious spleen—is Sandra Oh.

Oh is freshest in everyone’s mind as the casually promiscuous “pour girl” at a California winery in the Oscar-winning movie Sideways, directed by her recently estranged husband Alexander Payne. The moment in Sideways when things really start to get interesting is when Oh ups the ante on Thomas Haden Church’s flirtatious banter at a sample tasting. “Oh, you bad girl,” he teases when she generously tops off their glasses. “I know, I need to be spanked,” she deadpans in reply—causing a palpable wave of arousal in the theater where I saw the film. 

Asian women in American movies and television simply don’t talk that way. They can be “sexy,” in the inscrutable-dragon-lady fashion of Lucy Liu’s character on Ally McBeal, but they rarely, if ever, appear as funny, frank, and openly aggressive beings. Cristina Yang, the surgical resident Oh plays in Grey’s Anatomy, would be an unusual female character of any race on television—she’s unsentimental, ambitious, and unapologetically cranky, almost like a junior version of Hugh Laurie’s surly surgeon on House. In last night’s opening episode, Cristina jumps down the throat of the main character, the far more sincere Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), after the two of them collaborate on a difficult case, for which Meredith unwittingly gets the credit. “You did a cutthroat thing, deal with it,” snaps Cristina. “Don’t come to me for absolution.” At the end of the episode, she offers her colleague a brusque, backhanded apology: “Get some sleep. You look like crap.” When Meredith meekly parries, “I look better than you,” Oh’s character is implacable in her self-confidence: “That’s not possible.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt Sandra Oh’s career prospects that she’s right: She looks terrific, with classic features and a lithe body that could easily land her the kind of roles she characterized in a New York Times interview last year as ”****ing Asian kewpie dolls.” If she’s wise enough to keep turning those parts down (and if Grey’s Anatomy is allowed to die with dignity), Oh could be the first smart-ass Asian chick with a successful show of her own.