As promised, both "Grey's Anatomy" (Thurs. 9:00 p.m.) and "Private Practice" (Tues. 10:00 p.m.) kicked off the 2012 season with some big -time deaths. On "Grey's," we said good-bye, post plane-crash, to Mark "McSteamy" Sloan (Eric Dane, 2006-2012) and Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh, 2007-2012). On that show's spin-off "Practice," it was Dr. Pete Wilder (Tim Daly, 2007-2012) who bit the big one, felled by a heart attack while jogging. 
 
Of course, whenever a key player makes an untimely (and irreversible) exit, it may close doors for the actor but open them for the series itself. The question is, are they the right doors? At least with "Grey's," we might be getting that answer, or at least part of it, tonight.
 
Seattle Grace ("Grey's" home turf) has long been a hospital I would never, ever want to go to with an appendicitis, as the doctors seem too busy having sex in supply rooms to pay much attention to the silly little problems of patients. There's also the fact that the doctors have insanely bad luck -- cancer, bus accidents, a plane crash; let's just say I wouldn't want to be standing next to any of these people during a lightning storm. 
 
The aforementioned plane crash that took out two characters, left others rattled and resulted in yet another doctor, Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw), losing leg felt a little deus ex machina (okay, a lot), especially given the epic shoot out in the hospital that capped season 6. Though dark and emotionally wrenching, it was hard not to see that two-part finale as an easy way to purge the show of an influx of sketchy residents who arrived following the merger of Seattle Grace with Mercy West. Intended to give the series fresh blood, only so many of the new cast members stuck -- and thus the rest were unceremoniously offed. Though the survivors struggled with post-traumatic stress, and the whole ugly mess created a rich vein of drama for Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) to mine, life went on, as most of the victims who expired post-shooting were people we didn't care much about anyway.
 
Obliterating two well-loved characters who seemed to have plenty of stories left to tell, though, is something else altogether. As much as the survivors mourn, so do we -- and last week's season finale didn't pull a punch, using "video" footage of Sloan's more charming, heartfelt moments (toasting newlyweds, holding his baby) to remind us that under the playa exterior beat the heart of a wounded romantic. The structor of the premiere was also, though initially jarring, interesting. Instead of starting where the finale left off, we dive in well past that point, unsure of who has lived or died -- and Arizona's status in the "alive" column (though kinda leaked in the promos -- way to go, ABC) is a surprise saved for the ending of the show. 
 
The fact that tonight's episode and, possibly, further episodes will explore what really happened after the crash, when the hapless doctors find themselves stranded in the wood for a whole damn week, actually pushes the show back into must-see territory. We know what happened -- Meredith and Christina emerge alive but emotionally broken, Mark and Lexie died, Arizona lost a leg -- but now we get the "how," which is somehow more compelling given the experiment with structure.
 
Granted, some characters and themes are being flogged again (after this many years on the air, it's to be expected). Christina freaks out again, a doctor has a numb hand again (before it was Derek Shepherd, it was Preston Burke), blah blah blah. But by shaking up the playing pieces, show creator Shonda Rhimes has found some new games to play.
 
The exit of Daly on "Private Practice" isn't quite as compelling. The idea that Pete would keel over from a heart attack makes sense, I guess (though seemingly healthy as a horse after a season five heart attack, the man was ANGRY), but it seems that his widow Violet (Amy Brenneman) continues to have a giant "kick me" sign pasted to her back. She gets pregnant, a crazy woman cuts the baby OUT OF HER STOMACH and leaves her to die, she gets sued, Pete leaves her, Pete comes back… kind of a lot for one character with season six just starting). 
 
Granted, budget cuts for an on-the-bubble show are to be expected. But what seems more promising is that the show is reportedly gearing up for a throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall, let's-go-for-it bonanza. With star Kate Walsh (Addison) only committed to thirteen episodes, it doesn't seem likely that "Private Practice" will get a seventh season, so why not? Rhimes has said the writers are taking this as an opportunity to try every plot line they've initially passed on and every story that might not have made the cut before. This could be a disaster, but given that the show seems to have run out of ways to move around the deck chairs on the Titanic (Addison with Sam, Addison with Pete, Addison with Jake, etc. etc.), I forecast some fun. Heck, the twist of Charlotte being pregnant with triplets? That's going to yield all kinds of bitter snarkiness for an actress (KaDee Strickland) who does it better than almost anyone. And who knows? It just may be enough to save this little spin-off that could, sans Addison, after all.