Blogging the TCA, Part 6: “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice,” and Kate Walsh

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This is a live blog from the bi-annual Television Critics Association conference. See more TCA live blog posts here.

The last panel of the day — and the three-week TCA conference — is the much-anticipated Grey’s Anatomy spinoff Private Practice, starring Kate Walsh (#14 on The AfterEllen.com Hot 100 List, for good reason). There are double the normal number of people in the audience, and on the stage, with creator Shonda Rhimes in the middle flanked by Taye Diggs and Kate Walsh.

ABC rolls the promo for Private Practice, and it focuses mostly on Addison’s story line on Grey’s Anatomy. Clearly they’re still retooling the spinoff after the critical lashing the back-door pilot received in May.

Shonda fields a few questions about how she’s handling the pressure, but she doesn’t really say much. Not saying much, I’m about to discover, is her MO. When it comes to saying something while saying nothing, the woman has skills.

Kate’s asked about her reaction when she found out about the spinoff, and she says she was “in bed at 3am reading it like a teenager emitting screams of joy, like a super-top secret diary of someone else’s that I’d just found.” I start to picture that scene, but stop when I realize it’s interfering with my ability to focus on the panel.

A reporter asks why Audra McDonald replaced Merrin Dungey, and after Shonda jokes, “I don’t think we can go wrong with a four-times Tony winner,” she says they were rethinking the character of Naomi and needed someone “strong and tough.” Um, have you ever seen a show called Alias? Evil Francie can kick some serious ass!

There are more questions about how much this will be the Addison show vs. an ensemble, and a comment on the fact that Grey’s seems to have a more humorous tone than Private Practice. Shonda explains the promo was just meant to answer the question of “why Addison”, and talks about what an amazing group of actors she has, blah blah blah.

Finally, the unavoidable Isaiah Washington question is asked: what was Shonda’s reaction to NBC’s Ben Silverman saying he approached Isaiah while he was still on Grey’s? “I guess I don’t really have a reaction. He’s a very talented actor, I hope the Bionic Woman does really well, just not as well as Private Practice.” (Later, after the panel, she elaborates on her response to the Isaiah Washington situation. Sort-of.)

Back to the tone of the new show. Shonda says, “Grey’s is high school with scalpels, and practice is more grown-up, more like a squabbling family.”

A reporter asks whether the talking elevator will be back. Shonda hedges. She won’t commit one way or the other. Look, Shonda, you’re obviously extremely talented, and I’m a big fan of your work, but you can’t even make a definitive statement about an elevator?

Does Shonda feel confident in her ability to run both shows, someone asks? Shonda says yes, and defends the last season of Grey’s for the first, and surely not the last, time during this session. “I read the blogs, the responses on the Grey’s blogs, I take very seriously what the fans say, what that means to me is they’re watching it and they care about it. Do I feel we went wrong at the end of the season? No…it was the journey we had planned to take all along. It was a darker journey, but it was the journey these characters needed to take.”

But the reporters are just getting started. Was Shonda prepared for the negative reaction to the George and Izzie romance? “The characters are flawed and human,” she says. “I’m not necessarily say George and Izzy are the love story of the century, but it’s an interesting thing to explore when you decide your best friend is your soul mate.”

Enough already! Let’s get back to Kate Private Practice!

But it’s not to be. Will next season of Grey’s Anatomy return to a lighter tone? More ducking and weaving from Shonda. “Season 3 is a darker season,” she acknowledges, adding “it was necessary, but I want to get back to having fun.”

Spoiler: Shonda has no plans to cross over characters from Grey’s to Private Practice.

Another question about elevators, and how many scenes in Shonda’s shows take place in them. “I guess I have a thing for elevators,” Shonda finally admits. You think?

Kate chimes in that “there are supply closets, too.” She’s so cute. They could film all her scenes in a supply closet and I’d still watch.

A reporter asks the question I’ve been wanting to ask since for months: what happened to the strong and decisive Addison fans loved on Grey’s, and why wasn’t she in Private Practice? Shonda and Kate rush to Addison’s defense, saying she is strong and decisive as a doctor, just not as a person. Kate says all the characters, including Addison, are “at the apex of their careers but sort of a mess personally.” Nothing a nice lesbian affair won’t cure, Kate!

A question now for Amy Brenneman about her character’s love life on the spinoff. She gives an answer that doesn’t really say anything, but she’s very spirited about it. Amy gets a question about the timing of her decision to return to TV after Judging Amy was canceled, and she gives the standard “I have two small children so it would have to be a perfect fit” answer, but adds that she passed on several roles, including some that were the “wifey” roles woman are so often confined to. She seems a little bitter. I like it.

Now Tim Daly talks about how, when he was offered the role, Shonda said she could tell him about his character but nothing about the show. He says he suddenly started watching a lot of Grey’s Anatomy after that.

Spoiler: we see Addison tender her resignation to Richard in the season opener of Grey’s Private Practice.

There’s a question about the poster for the show, which has “Private Practice” emblazoned on a beach with a shot of a sexy woman’s stomach at the bottom.

Shonda thinks it’s “fine.” It’s almost enough to make you long for the ridiculous analysis of gender differences offered by the Women’s Murder Club and Cashmere Mafia panels.

There’s a question about what it’s like to work with a cast populated by such veteran actors. Shonda talks about it as an “all-star team,” and says the characters on Grey’s are all very “fresh and new, whereas these characters are…” Amy interjects, “tired and old.” Lots of laughter. That Amy is a fiery one. I approve.

Tim Daly jokes that “the fact that the trailer was all about Kate, Kate, Kate didn’t bother any of us!” Everyone laughs. A reporter asks whether Tim was frustrated with the way The Nine ended. There’s a long pause as Tim seems to be searching for the right words. Finally he says, “I’m trying to think of a way to congratulate myself on my Emmy nomination.” When the laughter dies down, he says yes, it was frustrating, and describes acting as “constantly slamming your head against a brick wall.” Hee. Wings was lame, but I liked him in Eyes and The Nine. I miss The Nine.

Shonda says she came up with the idea for the spinoff when she was watching Kate “doing something great” in a scene, and she just started writing what eventually turned into the back-door pilot. I’ve had some ideas about Kate while watching her doing something great in a scene, too, but probably slightly different ones than Shonda had.

Did I mention that Buffy’s Marti Noxon is on the panel, too? Apparently she’s an executive producer on Private Practice. A good sign!

The inevitable Veronica Mars question for surfer boy Chris Lowell: was he cast before the show was canceled? Yes, he says, because he wasn’t sure if they were bringing him back to Veronica Mars for the next season even if it was renewed. Who cares, Piz was annoying.

Kate is asked about her reaction to the fact that her career has skyrocketed in such a short time. “I could have never dreamed it,” she says happily, then adds, “I don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish about it, because I’m not, I’m a cynical bastard with a cold black heart, but I really feel like I’m living a great dream.” Best. Answer. Ever. I seriously love this woman.

Shonda talks about the chemistry between Kate and Tim, watching them kiss in the stairs, blah blah…when’s Addison going to hook up with a woman on the show, damnit? Why doesn’t someone talk about that?

But no, we’re back to questions about the genesis of the spinoff. How did Shonda convince ABC President Steve McPherson to let her do it? Shonda says she likes her job, so she’s not going to talk about the dinner, but ABC is really receptive and supportive, it’s all hearts and roses, yada yada yada.. Here’s an idea to be receptive to: Addison and Naomi deciding they should take their friendship to the next level.

Back to reality, and a question about how Shonda’s going to “make up ground” after “the rough season for Grey’s, from the Isaiah Washington controversy to unhappiness around storylines to unhappiness with Private Practice.” Shonda trots out the now-automated reply (I’m expecting to hear it on MovieFone the next time I call): “Yes, it was a difficult season for us behind the scenes, but creatively it was the direction we had to move.” Then she’s talking about characters growing and changing, and changing and growing, and whatever, I’m just going to admire Kate’s dress.

Another question about whether Shonda’s going to split her time evenly between the shows. Let me save you the suspense: yes.

Finally the panel ends, and the reporters mob the stage. I head for my hotel room, and a nap. No one told me covering television would be so much work!

That’s it for this summer’s TCA press tour. Look for more TCA coverage in January.

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