In this week’s issue, New York Magazine surveyed fourteen of the top TV showrunners about their process and craft. All during upfront week, we’ll be running longer transcripts of these conversations: some will include extended answers to our questionnaire, some will break free altogether, but all will provide a revealing and insightful look into the minds of the people who make our appointment television. One of those people is Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and the new, just-picked-up ABC drama Scandal. We spoke with Rhimes about whether her new show will feel like her old shows, if she cares about critical acclaim, and her appreciation of Buffy.
Was there a moment when you realized you wanted to make TV?
I adopted a baby and suddenly went from being this single girl who was going out all the time to someone who could never leave the house. I started watching a ton of television because the baby never slept and I never left the house. I watched all seven season of Buffy all at once, and I watched an entire season of 24 in like 24 hours. I had been writing movies before then and that’s sort of when I went … I was a little frustrated with movies because it felt like it was very simple and there was a very simple formula. I was watching television and I thought this is where all the character development is happening.
And you have so much more control on TV as a writer.
I always joke about that. On movies, you have no control as a writer, unless you’re the producer I suppose, but you have no control as a writer. What I wrote was never what ended up onscreen, for better or for worse. On television, everything I write is what ends up onscreen. It’s very satisfying in that sense.
Do you watch a lot of TV still, or does working on a show kill it for you?
Having a television show makes me want to talk about television so much less, so much less than you ever imagined you would. But I still watch a surprising amount of television. I watch a lot of comedies. I watch things that are different than what I do, like Dexter. I just saw The Killing, which I thought was really, really interesting. I watch 30 Rock and Community and Cougar Town. There’s not a lot else. Right now I feel like we’re going through a really interesting rebirth in television drama, so I’m interested to see where we go next.
What do you mean?
It feels like there have been a couple of seasons of network television where everything’s fallen into the toilet. Now we’re about to hit a phase where I feel like everyone will stop trying to remake the stuff that they’ve already made and make something that feels fresh and feels new.
What did you see a lot of remakes of?
I, for one, saw a lot of Grey’s Anatomy, but with lawyers; Grey’s Anatomy, but in the corn field; Grey’s Anatomy, but with backup dancers. There was a lot of that with all kinds of genres that they were doing, not just Grey’s. I’m hopeful that those will stop.
Are people going to be able to say that about your new show, Scandal, that it’s Grey’s Anatomy in the world of crisis PR, or does it feel different from the other Shonda Rhimes shows?
I don’t know. I really got invested in the idea that we were doing a show that’s in a very different world. Not that it’s not medical, because that’s really not that point. It’s a show about a woman who, because she spends her life fixing the problems of everybody else, has no sense of how to fix herself. More importantly, it’s sort of about what happens when you take in this group of stray-dog people and fix them and fix the world at the same time, so it’s all sort of related.
I haven’t seen it, but that sounds exactly like how you would describe Meredith on Grey’s.
I realized as I was saying it that that’s kind of the essence of Meredith Grey and Addison, to fix everything, but they can’t fix themselves. It’s a much different tone than those shows. I’m really proud of it, because to me I feel like I’ve grown as a writer when I watch it. I don’t think it has the “hallmarks” of what people think of as being a Shonda Rhimes show.
What are those hallmarks?
It doesn’t have a lot of shiny, happy people. I don’t know if that’s a real hallmark. I’m always very sensitive to the fact that people somehow think the shows are light and airy or optimistic. I don’t feel like I’ve ever written anything light, airy, or optimistic, because I’m not that person. People always tell me they associate my shows with romance and funny stuff and happiness, and I always think, I just put a shooter in the hospital that blew someone’s brain out.
So you find the light thing insulting?
I don’t find it insulting. I refuse to find anything that has made me this fortunate or successful insulting. I’m not going to complain. I also feel like you can’t set back and define your own work while you’re in the middle of it. The minute you start to pull back and examine it and label it and decide what it is, you’re screwed. So no, I don’t find it insulting; I find it curious.
How do you balance the shooter in the hospital story lines with the bed-hopping elements?
It’s instinctive. For me, it’s instinctive. We don’t really sit around and plan it and discuss it to death. I have a board where we lay out all the episodes, but I don’t feel like I need to say what the tone should be in each one. I can feel when a show needs to be more fun and I can feel when a show needs to be darker and I can feel when it’s time to do something that feels bigger, but I can’t explain to you why.
Grey’s was critically acclaimed when it started, and it’s less so now. Does that matter to you? Or do you only care how many people are watching?
It’s not about either one. Honestly, I have to say that if you pay attention to what the critics say when they say nice things, you have to pay attention to what the critics say when they say mean things. I don’t read anything. I remember reading something where someone said they didn’t read anything that’s written about them and I remember thinking, Yeah right, that’s so ridiculous, but I don’t. It’s just crazy-making. There’s absolutely no point. I haven’t figured out what positive thing could come of it yet, so I just don’t do it. And the number of people watching is only good because it means a certain measure of creative freedom going on over here. But those two things are sort of irrelevant to doing my job. If three people were watching my show and they would allow my show to be on the air, I would be doing the exactly same thing.
Do you care what fans think?
I care, but any time I’ve ever sort of stopped and paid attention to what was being said or trying to shift anything based on what was being said, the show just started to suck really bad. It’s sort of saying I hand my show over to the fans and it belongs to them. You can’t do that if you’re going to continue to be creative and create.
Do you have any concrete examples of when you started paying too much attention to fans?
I have no concrete examples. I feel like that’s going to get me in all kinds of trouble.
So there is a concrete example, but you just can’t tell me what it is?
I’ve read pieces where you talk about your characters in this very novelistic way, like, they tell me what the story is supposed to be, as if you don’t control them. Have you ever thought, in retrospect, that you made them do the wrong thing?
That’s a very complicated question. Do I regret any choices I’ve made with the characters? No, because I’ve made them and they’re done. Do I feel like they’ve taught me things that will inform how I do things now and will perhaps allow me to do things differently or with more knowledge? Yes.
When I was making the pilot, people were asking me a bunch of questions, and I was answering them all and the director turned to me and said, “You answer questions so quickly. You don’t take any time to think about them, you don’t obsess over the right or wrong answer, you just answer the question.” I looked at him like he was sort of crazy, because it had never occurred to me. I realized I don’t have time. There’s not enough time; there’s not enough hours in the day; there’s too many things going on. Everyone needs an answer to a question, so you give an answer and make a decision and move on. A lot of that is how it works. I make hundreds of decisions a day about anything from casting to someone’s shoes to what kind of flowers a character should have in their hair. You have to be decisive. You can’t stand around and think of the perfect thing.
So you’re not a perfectionist?
I am a perfectionist, but I feel like part of being a perfectionist is realizing that you have to decide the decision you’re going to make and that’s the perfect decision and you move on. Otherwise, I would never get anything done all day.
That’s logically weird, right? Like by picking it, it became perfect …
It’s completely weird, but it’s the only way I can function with the number of problems that are going on. A lot of people have shows but don’t run their own shows. I have two shows that I run on a day-to-day basis. It’s just a different animal.
Do you think that makes you less open to criticism?
I don’t know if it makes me less open to criticism. A lot of things make me less open to criticism.
Do you take criticism well in general?
No, I am a giant baby about all of that stuff. I feel like there’s criticism and then there’s constructive discussion. I don’t encounter a lot of constructive discussion, so that may be why I have that attitude toward criticism. I don’t have a lot of time for it. I want to get home and live my life and I have scripts to write. Anybody who is creative doesn’t want people standing around them saying they suck. Criticism is not fun for anyone.
Is there anyone you think gives good, constructive criticism?
I think it comes from all kinds of places. Do I welcome it? Almost never. Do I listen to it when it’s good? Yeah, I’ll grumble and walk about and then I’ll realize that was actually a really good idea.
What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned doing this?
I’m a writer who was, up until these shows, making stuff up in her head and suddenly now I have 2,500 to 3,000 people who work for Shonda Rhimes who I have to say things to and relate to. I have actors to talk to and writers to talk to and all kinds of things to do. The thing that I feel like I’ve learned, and I said this to the cast when I planned out the musical episode: Pessimism is catching, but so is optimism, so why not just be optimistic? It’s so easy to be bitter and jaded in this town. It’s so easy to hate what you do or to be sick of it or to complain, but it’s also just as easy to enjoy it and enjoying it is more fun.
Other Showrunner Transcripts:
Community’s Dan Harmon
30 Rock’s Robert Carlock
Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan
How I Met Your Mother’s Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
The Good Wife’s Robert and Michelle King
Justified’s Graham Yost
Cougar Town’s Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel
Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur