Powerhouse showrunner Shonda Rhimes is changing the face of television—and the very way we watch it
Author Nicholas DeRenzo Photography © James White/Corbis Outline
Last November, Shonda Rhimes—the creative force behind network megahits Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal—released her first memoir, Year of Yes, detailing her 12-month quest to leap out of her comfort zone and say “yes!” to anything and everything put in front of her: yes to conquering her fear of public speaking to deliver the 2014 commencement address at her alma mater, Dartmouth College; yes to getting fit and losing 127 pounds; yes to sharing a box with Barack and Michelle Obama at the Kennedy Center Honors; yes to embracing what she calls her inner “badassery” and owning her “swagger.”
Clearly, all that positivity is paying off. As the creator and showrunner of the aforementioned hits and an executive producer on the Emmy-winning How to Get Away with Murder, Rhimes controls a back-to-back-to-back three-hour scheduling block that’s been lovingly dubbed #TGIT, or Thank God It’s Thursday, by the ABC brass (possibly her biggest fans). If owning an entire night of network programming sounds like a big deal, that’s because it is: The feat was last achieved by the legendary Aaron Spelling in the early 1980s.
Her contributions to the 21st century’s televised landscape can’t be overstated. Now in its 12th season, Grey’s Anatomy still attracts more than 8 million viewers every week, and plot developments—like the death of Patrick Dempsey’s Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd—make international headlines. Scandal was the first network drama starring a woman of color since 1974 and has revolutionized the way we watch TV, thanks to the advent of live-tweeting. And How to Get Away with Murder earned Viola Davis an Emmy for best lead actress—the first time a black actress has won in that category.
This month, as Murder reaches its second season finale (March 17), there’s a worthy replacement waiting in the wings. ShondaLand, Rhimes’s production company, premieres a new drama, The Catch, just a week later, ensuring that Rhimes’s reign over Thursday night will continue. Here, the TV titan says yes to filling us in on her groundbreaking career.
Hemispheres: Take me back to the moment when you first found out about #TGIT. What did that feel like?
Shonda Rhimes: It didn’t feel like anything to me! I was always making three shows. For everybody else, it changed their perception of power. I say that there’s a “perception” of power that comes with owning Thursday night, but that power is true. It exists.
H: And what did that newfound power mean for you as a writer?
SR: It allows me to tell whatever stories I want to tell. So when I decide to tell a story about a Muslim character, I just tell it. I had an actor in the season premiere of Grey’s who played a dad in a Juliet and Juliet story. He came up to me and said, “Never in my life have I been cast as just a dad.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, I look Arab, and I’m always cast as a terrorist or a suspicious person. I’ve never been cast as someone’s dad who cares about his daughter. I’ve never gotten to play just a character.” And I thought, “That’s huge.”
H: You’ve spoken extensively about hating the word “diversity.” Instead, you’ve used the word “normalizing” to describe your casting choices—making worlds in your shows that look like the real world. Are you hopeful that others are following your lead?
SR: What I’m hopeful for is that people are starting to recognize that it is, from a business standpoint, profitable to make the world that you’re watching on television look like the world outside—like reality. To me, that is at least a step forward. It shouldn’t be “fashionable,” and it shouldn’t have to be that it’s profitable. But at the very least,
it’s a way of people understanding that this weird world that they create on television—where everyone looks strangely, overly pretty and way too thin, and everyone is white— isn’t a thing that people must see in order to feel good about watching television. It has to do with who the storytellers are.
H: It’s too bad that profitability even has to factor into the discussion.
SR: It’s crazy that it’s 2016 and you and I are having this conversation. It’s the 21st century, and we’re talking about this. It speaks poorly of humankind, but, you know, progress is progress.
H: Are there shows you see as a sign of that progress?
SR: Fresh Off the Boat, which is hilariously funny. Blackish. I don’t think anyone saw the rise of Empire coming—that’s just a monster show. And now other shows are approaching casting and not saying, “Well, we have a person of color on the show, we’re good to go!” They’re just saying, “Let’s see who’s good for a part.” It’s wonderful. Orange Is the New Black, they’re creating worlds in which everybody is included, because they’re just picking actors because they’re good.
H: You’re known for your Shondaisms: McDreamy, “my person,” Gladiators [an insidery nickname for Scandal fans]. Are you particularly proud of one that has made its way into the American lexicon?
SR: When “vajayjay” [from Grey’s Anatomy] became a word that was in the dictionary, that’s when I thought, like, “this show is pretty good.” That’s when the idea of cultural influence started to hit. I’m not necessarily thrilled that women are using that word to describe their body parts, but it’s allowed women to feel comfortable having the conversation. And if that’s what it’s done, then more power to the word. Because I’ve seen it said on talk shows now, and I’ve seen it said in commercials. And I don’t think I’ve seen people say the word “vagina” in commercials. So that’s a good thing.
H: Were there times early in your shows’ runs when you realized they were turning from network dramas into cultural phenomena?
SR: This is going to sound odd to you, but the other thing I’m really proud of is baby names. When Addison became one of the most popular baby names in the country, I thought, “Well, that is crazy.” Suddenly, people were naming their babies Meredith, Cristina, Izzie (Isobel), and Addison [all character names from Grey’s Anatomy]. What it meant to me was that people wanted their daughters to have those qualities. They wanted their daughters to be these women.
H: Before Year of Yes, did you find yourself writing traits you hoped to achieve for yourself into your characters?
SR: I’ve never thought of my characters as role models. It’s been very purposeful that I don’t want them to be perfect. But my emotional attachment to the characters does mean that whatever I’m going through or whatever’s bouncing around in the back of my head, I’m always working out whatever’s happening with the characters. Sometimes they’re the best version of me, sometimes they can be the worst version.
H: In the age of cord cutting and DVRs, your shows are an anomaly. People watch them in real time and engage with other fans on Twitter. Is that something you actively cultivate?
SR: It’s something that Kerry Washington and I purposely worked on. We said to the cast, “Get on Twitter, and let’s all tweet during the shows and try to get people interested.” There was no such thing as live-tweeting a show—unless you were making fun of it—before Scandal. It becomes a communal experience, because people all over the country are sitting down with their friends.
H: You could compare it to the 1950s, when everyone got together at the one house in the neighborhood with a TV to watch I Love Lucy.
SR: Somebody was saying it’s the new watercooler. It’s not the watercooler, because the watercooler is a rehash. Twitter is a campfire for us. We’re telling a story around a campfire, and these people are sitting around the campfire with us.
H: Have you ever been shocked by the audience’s reaction?
SR: The biggest one, obviously, was the death of Derek Shepherd on Grey’s. It wasn’t that I was surprised that people were paying attention. I was surprised by the level of outcry. To have Time magazine posting articles about how to mourn a fictional character? People were bereft. The level of devastation was shocking to me, not because I felt like that love story wasn’t special but because I was like, “It’s season 11? What?” It was very confusing—and such a big compliment.
H: Another compliment is your wide circle of celebrity fans. You’ve said that when you met Toni Morrison, all she wanted to do was talk about Grey’s Anatomy. What have been the most memorable celebrity fan encounters?
SR: Toni Morrison was a big one for me. When I found out that the Clintons watch Grey’s and Scandal together every Thursday night, I thought, “Oooh…” The whole idea that Bill Clinton was saying, “I love everything Shonda Rhimes does.” I was like, “What! How is that possible?” Mrs. Obama told me that I got the decor and the way that the whole White House residence was set up incorrect. You think, “They’re the real people. They don’t have to be watching the shows!” Janet Jackson and Prince were two that blew my mind. Prince posted a photo of himself in a suit and wrote, “A Gladiator in a suit.” I died. And he sends music. He’s just lovely.
H: Have you had any particularly memorable fan interactions?
SR: I meet a lot of young people who tell me that Grey’s gave them the language to come out to their parents, or it gave their parents the language to come out to them, which I think is profound and probably life-saving for lots of people and never fails to move me. There also have been a lot of people who have said that they’ve saved people’s lives because they learned how to do CPR watching Grey’s. Or that they’ve seen a patient have symptoms on Grey’s and then felt like, “Oh my God, I have the same symptoms!” and have gone to the doctor, been diagnosed with a disease, and then saved because of that.
H: That must add so much pressure!
SR: There’s a big impact and a responsibility in what a show like Grey’s does. Kaiser did a study that said most people—like, 70 percent of all people or something—get their medical information through television shows. You don’t want to be irresponsible with that. So we really work hard to be as accurate as we can.
H: Aside from literally saving lives, can you point to the arena where you feel you’ve made the biggest impact?
SR: The other impact we’ve had that I have found to be truly moving—I’ve been tearful at times—is I keep meeting young women who say, “I’m about to enter medical school, because I’ve watched Grey’s all this time, and you made me want to be a doctor.” Or, “My girlfriends and I spent last night having a Grey’s marathon while we waited for our residency assignments to come in, because Grey’s made us want to be surgeons.” The idea that more women are entering science because they watch Grey’s Anatomy is the best thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life.
Hemispheres senior editor Nicholas DeRenzo has watched roughly 466 hours—or more than 19 days—of Shonda–produced TV as of press time.