How ABC's 'Grey's Anatomy' is staying on top

'Grey's Anatomy': Meredith & Thorpe's First Date
'Grey's Anatomy': Meredith & Thorpe's First Date

It's hard to imagine that it's been a year since ABC's Grey's Anatomy said a shocking farewell to leading man Patrick Dempsey's Derek "McDreamy" Shepard.

In episode 21 of season 11, Derek was killed off after being struck by a car -; with a year remaining on Dempsey's two-year contract.

But a year later -; as Grey's prepares for its 21st episode of season 12 -; Grey's Anatomy is poised to end the 2015-16 television season as ABC's No. 1 drama among the coveted adults 18-49 demographic and one of the top five dramas on all of broadcast.

The news is quite a feat for a show in its 12th season, considering fans, angry after Dempsey's stunning departure, claimed in waves that they'd be quitting the Shondaland medical drama. A THR poll the morning after Dempsey's final episode found that 65 percent of voters said that they were "McDone" watching.

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So what's behind Grey's Anatomy's staying power?

"I really think change is what keeps it moving forward," star Ellen Pompeo (Meredith) told The Hollywood Reproter during a recent visit to the show's L.A. set. "The audience wants to see how the show looks without Derek. They're curious. How do we go on? They're as curious as we are, as the writers are. We're all figuring this out together. I think people tune in out of curiosity, and I think they love the characters."

Part of the growth, Pomepo and co-star Jerrika Hinton (Stephanie) say, is that nearly 250 episodes are available to stream on Netflix.

"Our viewership keeps expanding in age," Hinton tells THR. "We have teenage girls who are so wonderfully obsessive about the show, who discovered it because people in their family are watching it. And they take ownership of the show, and they discover it through Netflix."

Also key, Pompeo says, is the "remarkable" fact that the 2005 pilot still holds up 12 years later. "That's a testament to Shonda Rhimes and her vision right from the very beginning," says Pompeo, who notes that new viewers are watching fresh episodes as they air and turning to the streaming giant to become more fully invested in the journeys of remaining original stars Meredith, Alex (Justin Chambers), Bailey (Chandra Wilson) and Richard (James Pickens Jr.).

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For as many of its shocking deaths (RIP George O'Malley, Mark Sloan and Lexie Grey), Grey's has also become well versed in reinventing itself with new characters -; including the additions of fan favorites like Jesse Williams (Jackson), Sarah Drew (April), Camilla Luddington (Jo), Hinton and, more recently, Kelly McCreary (Maggie) and Martin Henderson (Nathan Riggs), who is happy to take the credit for the show's loyal audience.

"Clearly it's me! Just do the math!" Henderson says with a belly laugh.

For her part, McCreary says there's something special about returning to the home of Meredith's late mother, Ellis Grey (Kate Burton), in season 12.

Following Derek's death, Meredith sold the so-called dream house that Derek built for the couple and returned to the home she inherited from her mother that was featured prominently in the show's early seasons (and where many characters have at least temporarily lived).

"Spending time as a unit of people, bonding and getting to know each other under the roof of Ellis' house really had a visceral impact on our audience," McCreary tells THR. "It's very familiar; a lot of important memories about these characters were made in that space. And having [sisters] Meredith, Maggie and Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) living together and fighting with each other in that space allows us to explore who Meredith is without Derek in a different way. We got to see this other side of Maggie and see Amelia growing with all the changes in her relationship with Owen. I think that's a big part of it."

Hinton, meanwhile, also looks at Grey's Anatomy as a good window into some of the more dramatic elements of humanity.

"Shondaland is really good at exploring messy humanity, and that's appealing to people," she says. "It's not just for purely escapist reasons, but also because it reflects our own underbellies and you can learn so much from seeing how other people deal with that kind of stuff. Beyond that, it's magical. Maybe you can't explain it because if you could, there would be a dozen people doing it, but there aren't."

As for the show's future -; Grey's Anatomy is already renewed for season 13 -; Pompeo remains humble when asked if there's been talk about challenging ER as TV's longest-running medical drama.

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"We're not out for a record," she says, opting to remain mum on her contract status. "We want to keep the quality of the show as good as it can be. When we feel like it can't go on anymore, certainly with the numbers being as strong as they are, the network doesn't want to hear anything about an endgame right now. I think it's presumptuous to say we want to go for 15 [seasons, like ER]. The audience at any time can drop out. We can't take that for granted, that they're just going to stick with us for as long as we do the show. I don't think that's true. Even if it is true, I don't think you should think that way. I appreciate every season as it comes and what we get and leave it at that."

Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.