What can’t Shonda Rhimes do?
She’s the executive producer of the hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy, the political thriller Scandal, and the legal potboiler How to Get Away With Murder, which air in contiguous time slots on ABC. The network hasn’t packed three programs by a single executive producer into one night since 1982, when Aaron Spelling’s series T.J. Hooker, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island aired back-to-back-to-back on Saturdays. All three Rhimes dramas, including the freshman Murder, are popular hits, which is why ABC recently extended its deal with Rhimes’s production company, Shondaland, to keep her on the hook through mid-2018. She’s a master juggler, subcontractor, and impresario who seemingly has yet to succumb to the kind of focus problems that have bedeviled other multitasking showrunners. She created Grey’s and Scandal and oversees Murder, which is the brainchild of Peter Nowalk, a longtime writer and producer on her other programs. Rhimes is as hands-on as a TV producer can be while keeping tabs on multiple shows and having something like a private life. Each workday, she drops her daughter off at school, then heads back to her house, where she tracks the real-time cutting of Shondaland shows via a closed-circuit feed of editors’ workstations. She also holds in-person or virtual story conferences, reads and writes and rewrites scripts, confers with network executives, and who knows what else.
The notion of Rhimes as an NSA-level master of surveillance — the eye in prime time’s sky — would be intriguing even if her shows weren’t good. But they are good. At their best, they’re proof that brazenly commercial pop culture can be at once silly and serious, entertaining and artful, disreputable and significant. Scandal and Murder, in particular, are models of how to make network TV a social-media event, designed to be watched, commented upon, and unpacked as it’s happening onscreen. Every week between 9 and 11 p.m., when Scandal and Murder air new episodes, you see normally blasé-snarky Twitter feeds light up with OMGs and WTFs. The shows manipulate viewers like puppet master Olivia Pope yanking the D.C. media’s strings and make old TV formats new again.
That’s ultimately the key to Rhimes’s success: her knack for re-imagining TV’s past in fresh and inclusive ways. I like to imagine the CEO of Shondaland as a precocious middle-school kid in the early ’80s, watching prime-time soaps like Dallas, Falcon Crest, and Dynasty, then staying up all night writing her own versions in a spiral notebook, always making sure to carve out a plum role for an African-American woman who — like Scandal’s crisis manager Olivia (Kerry Washington) and Murder’s law professor and defense attorney Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) — had to be invited into the heart of power because she was too brilliant and driven to exclude.
That, in a sense, is what happened for Rhimes in Hollywood: She toiled on a variety of series before hitting it big with Grey’s and treating it as an anchor for other hits, including the Grey’s spinoff Private Practice, which ran six seasons. And that’s why it’s understandable that some journalists would fixate on the presumably autobiographical elements of her art, as the New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley did this past fall, reading Scandal and Murder mainly as apologies for/reclamations of the “angry black woman” stereotype. The problem with Stanley’s formulation isn’t that it’s entirely wrong — surely Olivia and Annalise at least sometimes channel Rhimes’s experience, in the same way that Martin Scorsese’s Italian-American social strivers represent aspects of Scorsese’s — but that it’s too narrow. Olivia and Annalise are indeed angry in some ways; as women of color trying to hold power in white-male-dominated fields, they would and should be, but they’re more than angry. Indeed, none of the major players on Rhimes’s dramas are defined by one emotion or trait. They are all mere facets of Rhimes’s vision.
Her success comes from two intertwined factors. The first is her tendency to see scripted TV as an endlessly malleable dream space, vast enough to embrace characters that, during prime time’s first 60 years, were relegated to clown duty or refused admittance entirely. All three of Rhimes’s shows are essentially turbocharged melodramas in a 1980s or ’90s vein: Scandal is Dynasty plus The West Wing with a dash of 24, while Murder is The Paper Chase spiked with the lustiness and rude humor of L.A. Law or The Practice. We’re familiar with these modes, and that’s why the shows are so inviting. “We all know what happens next,” Scandal’s chief of staff Cyrus (Jeff Perry) tells Tony Goldwyn’s President Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant this season regarding his ongoing affair with Olivia. “We’ve seen this movie a hundred times.” But it’s the tinkering that makes the shows sing — and here, too, it all comes down to the decision to prize psychological richness over warmth or that network-executive-beloved drama-murdering adjective likability. (“I don’t have to be your friend to do my job brilliantly,” Olivia warns a client this season.)
The second factor is craft. Rhimes’s shows are compulsively watchable and routinely take risks that we don’t think of as risks because we’re having too much fun watching the characters scheme, brood, screw, and kill. They balance provocation and familiarity, reality and fantasy, political daring and masochistic, three-hanky melodrama. They would seem too nutty, too ridiculous, too trashy, too everything, were it not for that first factor, their mix of democratic spirit and psychology. Scandal and Murder, like Grey’s before them, are filled with ambitious, horny, hyperverbal characters betraying and trysting and monologuing, as if every clip were a potential Emmy clip (and who knows, maybe it is!). A good number of Rhimes’s characters are black or brown or Asian or gay, and the show acknowledges their differences when it makes sense to do so, but they’re always people first, types second. There’s a constantly startling rawness that keeps us hooked, even when the plotting on Rhimes’s shows is so grim that it verges on paranoid fantasy or so abstracted from everyday life that it might as well be scored with free jazz and intercut with Jackson Pollock canvases.
Consider Olivia’s relationship with her dad, intelligence operative Rowan Pope (Joe Morton), as fleshed out in season four’s “The Last Supper.” The episode is a Jungian gore-pit in which an American’s fear of the security state meets a daughter’s resentment of her powerful father’s narcissism and neglect. Olivia learned that her smiling monster of a daddy ordered the murder of the president and First Lady’s young son, and she became obsessed with bringing him to justice. But she’s also daddy’s girl, and that complicates the whole justice thing. A part of Olivia still craves Rowan’s attention and approval. That’s why this season’s tug-of-war over Papa Pope’s dinner invitations to Olivia is so oddly poignant. (“You are disgusting,” she tells him. “That may be, but I am still your father,” he replies; he says it like he means it, and her eyes don’t doubt him.) These universal emotions also have a specific cultural valence; they come out during a dinner in the mid-season finale that’s supposed to finish with Rowan’s arrest but instead ends with the old man outsmarting his daughter and walking off scot-free. “Those people are not your people,” he admonishes Olivia, before revealing that he’s outplayed her again. “They never will be — and you will never be one of them.” These lines might be affecting no matter who delivered them; the fact that they pass between black characters, in reference to a visibly white power structure, gives them deeper resonance, as well as an autobiographical spin that could seem overdone were Scandal’s writers not practiced at Henry Kissinger’s art of plausible deniability. If there’s a larger statement being made here about racial exclusion or the evils of the national-security state (and the insinuating performances of Morton and Washington sure make it seem as though there is), it’s being made obliquely — and in the end, it’s drowned out by the hum of storytelling machinery.
Such is the case with every plotline and relationship of any consequence on Rhimes’s shows. Scandal’s constantly cheated-on First Lady, Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), and its ambitious, secretly scheming vice-president, Andrew Nichols (Jon Tenney), were drawn together via feelings of neglect. That shared bit of psychology explains why their most recent hookup (a tryst in “The Last Supper,” following the veep’s surviving a car bomb) was genuinely touching, even though it was a blatant setup for another shocking twist. Ditto the now-widowed Cyrus’s dalliance with a handsome hustler, Michael (Matthew Del Negro), which gave us insight into Cyrus’s grief over losing his partner, his continued attempts to process coming out after decades in the closet, and his own role in creating sex scandals to silence Fitz’s opponents. (With evident shame, he tells Olivia that he exploited the lust, greed, and weakness of men and women as desperate as he is now.) When Olivia’s new beau, black-ops assassin Jake Ballard (Grey’s Anatomy alumnus Scott Foley), finds himself in a top-secret holding cell being grilled by Fitz and Olivia about Rowan’s treachery, the scene is equally about the sins of a rogue homeland-security state and the alpha-male sandwich that Olivia finds herself pressed into. “Excuse me,” Jake snarls at the most powerful man in the world, who just dared interrupt him, “I’m talking to my girlfriend.” It’s a testament to the well-established, kidding/not-kidding tone of Shondaland shows that the national-security-crisis talk and the John Hughes–level romantic tension seemed to amplify rather than neutralize each other. The episode’s most memorable scene was silent: As Fitz and Jake barked at each other, the camera zoomed slowly into Olivia’s aghast face, and as she realized that her father was right, and she was being ignored by the same men who supposedly adored her, the sound dropped out.
If Scandal’s fourth season confirmed the durability of the Rhimes formula, the first half-season of Murder showed that it could be reimagined and made exponentially more complex. It was sold to the media as a legal-mentor-and-pupil story, with Davis’s Professor Keating strutting in a red leather jacket and dressing down bright, sexy students, but it instantly revealed itself as something else: a crackerjack mystery that toyed with structure as audaciously as the more widely praised True Detective, Fargo, and The Missing. The pilot kicked off with a flash-forward to Keating’s panicked students burying a body in the woods on the night of a campuswide party (Whose body? Stay tuned!), then alternated present- and past-tense scenes, fracturing the narrative with a musical-mathematical relentlessness that evoked the crosscutting-crazed films of Christopher Nolan. The mid-season finale, “Kill Me, Kill Me, Kill Me,” was a clockwork marvel; it revealed the entire series as a Cubist puzzle that denied the audience a full view of characters’ motivations, obscured the show’s true agenda, and cast the very title into doubt (Who, exactly, is trying to get away with murder? Stay tuned!). The body belonged to a character we assumed was narratively untouchable; the very last scene revealed that actions we thought were spontaneous had been guided by another character, perhaps under the instruction of yet another character.
The intelligence displayed on Rhimes’s series is that of a showman rather than a poet, though there is often poetry in the tawdry spectacles it serves up with such panache. More than that, though, what comes through is an unmistakably personal stamp — a sense that we’re in the hands of a producer who has long dreamed of remaking TV’s rules in her own image and finally succeeded.
*This article appears in the December 15, 2014 issue of New York Magazine