"Grey's Anatomy" ended last season on an upbeat note: Doctors Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd got together for good.
That leads to a new question as the ABC medical drama opens Season 5 (Thursday, 9 ET/PT): What happens after happily ever after? For Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Derek (Patrick Dempsey), being a committed couple is hardly the end of the story, creator Shonda Rhimes says.
"They've never had the chance to get past the 'Will they, or won't they?' and be in the 'What happens now?' part of it," she says. "There's a lot of humor and pathos and pain to be played in what it's going to mean for the two of them to really be together."
Dempsey says the two are "always going to have conflict. They're always going to be working on issues."
Other stories include:
•Romantic possibility for Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh). In Thursday's two-hour premiere, which features victims of an ice storm, she's attracted to a military doctor (Kevin McKidd), but he must return to Iraq. "We will see him again," Rhimes says.
•A "lovely story" for Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl). Details are hush-hush, but part of it involves things heating up between Izzie and Alex Karev (Justin Chambers). She won't get a brain tumor as has been rumored.
•"Devirginized" doctors. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) and Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith) will each explore first-time feelings for another woman. Rhimes consulted GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) to try to make the story authentic. There are humorous possibilities as Callie sorts out a new direction: "What would she be thinking? What would she be doing?" Rhimes says.
•Lexie Grey's (Chyler Leigh) attraction to roommate George O'Malley (T.R. Knight). "It doesn't go where you'd expect," Rhimes says.
And Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica) is in final talks for a multi-episode arc.
Viewership fell 20% last season (15.6 million) but rebounded with a big finale (18.1 million). The writers' strike hurt ratings, although Grey's felt a sharper decline than many other hits.
The strike also shortened the season, which delayed the Seattle Grace residents from finishing their second year. They will face pressure trying to reverse a drop in national hospital ratings.
Still, the mood of the characters is "pretty happy," Rhimes says. "Everybody is starting fresh. There are some good leaping-off points from the end of last season."