It's Thursday night and 170 people are sitting in a Colleyville, Texas, movie theater, wondering whether Meredith Grey just might be dead.
She nearly drowned. She's hypothermic. Her skin is blue. She's having an afterlife experience.
During commercial breaks, the hushed crowd at the Metro Cinema breaks into chatter.
She's not gonna die, right?
But it's Grey's Anatomy, and anything can happen.
But they can't kill her off because the show's named after her, right?
But she could die and stick around, couldn't she, like that dead woman who narrates Desperate Housewives?
And hey, do you want that last slice of pizza?
Once more: This is at a movie theater, where big-screen showings of Grey's Anatomy have become such a hit that this particular theater had to open a second auditorium to accommodate the overflow crowd there to the climax of the three-part ferry-disaster story, "Some Kind of Miracle."
According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, it's a Thursday-night ritual for some fans, who also chow down on offerings from the full-service, in-theater restaurant and bar.
"It started with, like, four girls; now we come with, like, 14 people," says Kelsey Sherck, a 14-year-old Colleyville Heritage High School student who, on her fifth visit, has become a Metro Cinema regular.
"The first time I came, it was a half-full theater, and now you have to get here an hour early to be able to get a seat."
Sherck, who keeps busy with school and tennis, says she watches only one hour of TV a week, and seeing it on the big screen makes it "more special.""Everyone is into it, so it's more fun to talk about it with other people and talk about what happens," she says. "During commercials, everyone was like, 'Oh, my God!'" Her friends, in a group large enough to be scattered across two tables, swarmed together to talk whenever the ads started - and the shushing began as soon as the show was back on.
TV-viewing parties such as this aren't anything new, as anyone who lived in a dorm during General Hospital's Luke-and-Laura days could tell you.
But what was once the province of dorm rooms and bars has been creeping into movie theaters, which have been offering not just special events like the Academy Awards, but also scripted dramas like Grey's Anatomy on the big screen.
Metro Cinema also shows 24 and American Idol; Dallas' Angelika Film Center screens Grey's Anatomy and Heroes, and the Angelika Plano shows Heroes.
But in Colleyville, Grey's Anatomy has become a phenomenon and, despite the presence of a few men, it's a bonding experience for a predominantly female audience there for a "girls' night out."
During the Star-Telegram's visit, a few young women were dressed in scrubs, a la the show's problem-prone interns. One row was taken up almost entirely by members of the Colleyville and Birdville high school girls' soccer teams, who are regulars.
Metro Cinema had to open progressively larger auditoriums for the Grey's Anatomy screenings, according to Konnie Patke, the theater's director of group sales and marketing.
Patke says that because the theaters don't charge admission, the networks have no issues with the screenings. The showings are first-come, first-served, and Grey's Anatomy is so popular that some fans arrive up to two hours early.
As is the case with the Angelikas, the theaters make their money from food and drinks, including beer and wine. And the networks say they benefit from the screenings.
"When you have a show like Grey's Anatomy, part of the fun of the show is being able to sit there with friends and family and talk about it right away, and have a really fun communal experience," says Michael Benson, ABC's head of marketing. "I think it speaks to people still wanting to get together in a community way and escape through television."
That feeling extends to bars not traditionally known for TV parties. Fort Worth's Billy Wilson leads a gathering of Lost fans who convene at 9 p.m. Wednesdays to watch the show on a 135-inch screen at 6th Street Live near the Montgomery Plaza shopping center in Fort Worth. Wilson started doing this when the show aired at 8 p.m. Wednesdays and he was a bartender at the now-closed Black Dog Tavern.
"I got hooked on watching Lost, and my shift started at 8 o'clock," Wilson says. "So I had my schedule pushed back to 9 so I could finish the show and ended up being 15 minutes late [to work]. Chatting with random folks about the show, they'd say, 'You know, I love that show.' I decided to put it together to do a watching party up there and invite complete strangers in a room with one another to watch the show, and they'd all have one common bond."
When the Black Dog closed in December, Wilson approached the management at 6th Street Live, which was okay with the idea of showing Lost on the big screen - especially since the show had moved to a 9 p.m. start and provided a natural lead-in to the bar's 10 p.m. musical acts. Word is still getting out about the change of venue, Wilson says, but even the relatively small turnout on a recent Wednesday can work in 6th Street's favor.
"Everybody has beers and socializes," Wilson says. "Bars are kind of a social atmosphere anyway, and the Lost plot has so much mystique behind it that when something weird happens, during a commercial you can ask someone, 'What did that mean?'"
The screenings can also benefit advertisers, because the satellite feeds for the shows are run straight through, including commercials. So unlike home-viewing, there's no channel-surfing, no ad-muting, no fast-forwarding. Although the movie-theater viewing parties were new to Benson, he says that ABC has arranged screenings of shows such as Lost to generate word-of-mouth and media attention.
"I look at this and say the drawback is it's not measured by Nielsen," Benson says, referring to the best-known TV-ratings service. "[But] it's great for us, it's great for the television show, it's great for the advertisers."
Whether a show works for a big-screen crowd is a bit of a guessing game. Elaborate dramas such as Heroes and Lost do well, but the turnout was small for a recent showing of 24 in Colleyville. And reality TV is hit-or-miss.
Because of Emmitt Smith's participation in Dancing With the Stars last season, that show did great at the Angelika Dallas. But Genie Sullivan, events and promotions director for the Angelika Plano, says the theater stopped showing American Idol because of a lack of interest. Heroes, however, shows just how passionate a crowd can be for TV on the big screen.
"We have got a real strong following with the comic-book crowd," Sullivan says of the show, which stars Hayden Panettiere and other attractive young stars who discover they have super powers. "They're nuts about it. Talk about a devoted crowd. They're here every week, the same people over and over. Dare I say it, they don't miss an episode."