Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our new feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
Cue the voiceover.
The human brain is a funny thing. It can completely love something but still never quite forgive or forget a past transgression.
There’s not a show I love more than Grey’s Anatomy. It is my person. Like any long-term relationship, sometimes the show annoys me. Over the years I’ve also forgotten so much about what has transpired on the series, especially in the early seasons (Meredith had a dog! Chris O’Donnell was on the show! Lexie and Alex slept together!). There are so many bad plot points I’ve forgiven the show for. I’m seriously almost over last season’s ridiculous episode that found Alex (Justin Chambers) departing the series via a voiceover. But there’s one storyline that no matter how hard I try, I cannot forgive or forget.
My friends, I’m here today to talk about the worst storyline Grey’s Anatomy ever told. I’m talking, of course, about Dead Denny/Ghost Denny/the Denny Who Shall Not Be Named.
Heart patient Denny Duquette (Jeffery Dean Morgan) arrived at the hospital formerly known as Seattle Grace innocently enough on January 15, 2006. As he told Izzie (Katherine Heigl) upon first meeting her, he was a “Capricorn, single, loves to travel and cook.” With his gravelly voice, demure half-smile, 5 o’clock shadow and smoldering eyes, Morgan even made a hospital gown sexy. Izzie fell for him and so did we. Theirs was a traditional courtship of flirting and declarations of love. She made him a sweater and cut the L-VAD wire to move him up the transplant list. You know, the usual stuff. When Izzie accepts Denny’s proposal, he tells her “You’re going to make my heart stop beating and it’s brand new.” We all melted.
After being dramatically saved, Denny abruptly died in the second season finale. Izzie’s illegal actions had rescued him but then he suffered a stroke and died before he got to see her in her prom dress (yes there was a prom at the hospital. Don’t ask.).
Initially, Denny was one of the best characters Grey’s Anatomy ever created. And it seemed that perhaps, even for a show with a penchant for killing off characters, the writers and producers started to regret Denny’s untimely passing. In the show’s third season, Meredith drowned and was in comatose state (the first of many times the show has almost killed Meredith). While her life was hanging in the balance, Denny appeared to her to encourage her to fight to live. This, of course, would not be the last time Meredith sees dead people. They’re everywhere.
By Season 5, Alex and Izzie are in a relationship. Izzie realizes her heart patient is the man who was supposed to get a heart years ago before she illegally moved Denny up the transplant list. And suddenly Denny (with Morgan listed as a special guest star) is there, looking all James Dean sexy in a just-right white t-shirt watching over his beloved. Naturally Izzie is more than a little freaked out and, as an audience, we are already skeptical of a character the show is bringing back from the dead a second time … even if he does look great in those jeans and was just as charmingly flirtatious as ever. “I’m here for you Izzie Stevens,” he keeps telling her repeatedly.
It doesn’t help matters that Dead Denny’s introduction comes at a creative nadir for the series. Melissa George’s Sadie has just been introduced. Allegedly an old friend of Meredith’s who we had never heard about she insists on referring to our beloved title character as “Death” and gets all the interns to do a practice appendectomy on her. Her character is excruciatingly grating. Re-watching these episodes I had forgotten every single intern but Lexie (Chyler Leigh).
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Heigl had caused DRAMA. The summer before the fateful fifth season, Heigl withdrew her name from Emmy contention memorably telling the Los Angeles Times, “I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination, and in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization, I withdrew my name from contention.” Ouch. It’s almost as if the writers thought, “You think what we gave you in the fourth season was bad, wait until you see what we can come with in the fifth.”
At the same time, I was dealing with Dead Denny. I wasn’t necessarily happy about him being back on the show, but I was dealing with it. That is until in the ninth episode of the fifth season entitled “In the Midnight Hour.” Denny and Izzie do something they never could do while he was alive. That’s right. They have sex. A lot. This is a show where everyone sleeps with everyone, everywhere, all the time. But this, my friends, was the proverbial bridge too far. “I’m a dead man who loves you,” Denny said as we all covered our eyes and screamed.
And this romance with a dead man went on forever. Okay maybe not forever but way too long. Instead of telling her what was going on, he kept talking in riddles and, like a broken toy, repeating the mantra “I’m here for you.” We also had no idea what was going on, but we wanted it to stop.
I mean if Dead Denny really loved her, couldn’t he have just told her she was sick right from the start? Izzie didn’t figure out what was wrong with her until four episodes after Denny left. She had metastatic melanoma that had spread to her brain. By that point, we just didn’t care. A terrific character was ruined. And even that didn’t get rid of Dead Denny. He returned for two more episodes to let Izzie know her brain tumor had returned. UGH.
I thought a lot about this awful storyline recently when both Patrick Dempsey and T.R. Knight returned to the series as specters from the past. Once again Meredith is in a coma (I told you, the show loves to almost-kill Meredith). But these character returns were joyous and cathartic—a positively delightful surprise, not a groan-inducing plot twist. A brief respite from the current horrors of our world. A chance to visit with old friends. Maybe it’s because Dempsey and Knight didn’t have as much drama surrounding their respective departures from the series. Maybe it’s because Meredith is seeing them in dreams and we, the audience, understand what’s happening, but I was thrilled to see them again.
Yet true to his ghostly spirit, here we are nearly 12 years later and the memory of Dead Denny has never faded. So much has happened on the show since then. To put it in perspective, Kim Raver’s Teddy Altman joined the series, departed the series, and returned to the series after the entire Dead Denny story line had happened. Morgan’s career has flourished since then as he’s had memorable roles on The Good Wife, Supernatural, and The Walking Dead. But still, there’s a part of me who will always think of him as “Dead Denny.”
Cue “How to Save a Life.”
Cue the closing voiceover: We move on. We keep watching. We welcome new characters and say goodbye to others. But we never forget the worst storyline Grey’s Anatomy ever told.
Now in its 17th season, Grey’s Anatomy returns with new episodes on March 4th.
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).
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