Shonda Rhimes does not give up secrets easily. When we caught up with the Scandal showrunner earlier this month at ABC’s TV Critics Association press tour party, she was characteristically vague about what’s in store for Olivia Pope and the Gladiators as the series begins its third season this fall (October 3, if you haven’t updated your calendar yet). So after squeezing out just a little bit of of information about upcoming story lines, we moved on to other topics: The show’s staccato-like pacing, the possibility of a spinoff, her disdain for the idea that Scandal is anybody’s “guilty pleasure.” If you’re all up to date on the show, read on. And if you’ve yet to get addicted? Season one of Scandal is on Netflix now, while season two is on Hulu Plus (and heads to Netflix later this month).
So last season ended with Olivia being confronted by reporters who’d found out she’d been having an affair with Fitz. How will you kick off season three?
When season three begins, I feel like we have some business to take care of. People are saying to Liv, “Are you the president’s mistress?” The first episode sort of leads to some very interesting negotiations between the president and the first lady and Olivia in a way.
What can you reveal about the overriding themes for some of the characters next season. Let’s start with Olivia.
There’s a moment in the second scene of the first episode where you sort of discover that the Olivia you know now is a very different person than she used to be. I feel like we’re discovering that Olivia’s in this very interesting state of evolution, and we have no idea where she’s going to be at the end of this season.
And the president?
I can’t say anything about him that’s not a spoiler!
How about the first lady?
Everyone should remember that Mellie is smarter than anybody gives her credit for.
How far in advance do you plot out story arcs?
We left the end of season two, and then we all came back and sat down and went, “What the hell is going to happen next?” And then we figured it out. That’s the fun of it. I feel you have to leave it all on the page and the screen, and then go from there … When I left season one, I had no idea what was going to happen in season two. I remember saying to the writers, “Yay! The writers’ room for season two begins tomorrow. If anyone has any idea for who Quinn Perkins is, let us know.” If you hold story back — there’s no way to hold story back on this show anyway, because we’re moving so fast.
And will you keep burning through plot at such a rapid clip?
Oh, yeah. We have every intention of keeping the pace up. The show lends itself to that. And if we don’t do that, the show slows down and get stagnant.
You made it clear when you talked to Willa Paskin earlier this year that you’re not a fan of folks who call Scandal a “guilty pleasure.” Why do some folks still insist on that phrase?
It’s because I write Grey’s Anatomy, because I write things people think are a little fluffier in their mind. Which is weird, because Grey’s Anatomy is pretty dark. It’s the same reason that when people call it a soap opera I get pissed — because it’s not a soap opera. And I don’t think it’s a guilty pleasure. It just sounds like a back-handed compliment. If you think it’s a guilty pleasure, don’t watch it. The Real Housewives of any city is a “guilty pleasure.”
You also shocked some people in Hollywood when you said very clearly that you’re not taking notes from ABC or ABC Studios.
I got into a lot of trouble for saying that.
For being truthful?
I got into a lot of trouble for being truthful, I guess. It’s not that I … take no notes. It’s not like I say, “Screw you, I’m not going to take notes.” What’s really good is that I have a relationship with the studio and network where they’re very comfortable with what we’re doing. And so there’s not a lot of notes given, which is nice. [But] I feel like if I got a great note — I don’t care where a great note comes from. I’m not one of those people who’s like, “My brain is more special than anybody else’s.” If I get a great note, I love a great note.
Now that you’re two full years into Scandal, is there a character who’s the most radically different than what you first designed?
Cyrus. He is by far one of the most interesting characters that I’ve ever gotten to write. I knew that I wanted him to be sort of a beast. But I didn’t realize what I would be getting in Jeff Perry [who plays Cyrus]. He’s incredible. You know, he played a sort of very quiet, stuttering man on Grey’s as Meredith’s father. And he’s the complete opposite character [on Scandal]. But he’s so much fun to write for. I remember waking up one morning during [season one] and going, “Cyrus is gay. He has a husband. And his whole thing is he can never be president, and he’s very bitter about that.”
There are shades of gray with most of the characters on Scandal, if you’ll pardon the pun. Is any one character truly evil, truly a bad guy?
Maybe Charlie the assassin is really, truly bad. But even him: He has a job to do!
Can you imagine Scandal becoming a franchise — say, Scandal: Hollywood? Do you see offshoots, the way Grey’s led to Private Practice?
I don’t think Scandal should be a franchise. I feel like Scandal is what it is. I’m getting to write the world’s most intriguing novel. And I’m having a great time. It’s an experiment to me, so I don’t think a franchise is what makes sense. Although, If you had asked me in season three of Grey’s Anatomy, I would have said [the show would be] four seasons and out.
How are you dividing your time between the two shows these days?
You know, I have a 10- year-old child at home and an almost 2-year-old child. I love them both equally. But I don’t have to get my 10-year-old dressed in the morning. And I don’t have to change her diaper. On the shows, I have a ten-year-old show and an almost two-year-old show. It’s a different amount of involvement. I don’t have to show up at Grey’s every single morning and hold everyone’s hand and make sure everything’s working, because we all know what’s working. We’ve all been working for it for ten years. If I had hired people who I had to check in on a daily basis on Grey’s, I would have not done my job. Scandal’s a newer show. We’re all sort of figuring out what works. And it’s also exciting in that sense. It’s a new animal.
Is there a part of you that wishes ABC would let you do Scandal like a cable series, with just thirteen episodes every year?
Yes. Absolutely. But we’re [already] splitting the seasons in half. And we did the same thing last season. Last year, I said, “We’re not going to think of it as a whole season.” We had two seasons instead of one big season. It’s the only way to do it with a show like that. [But] if Scandal had ended at the end of thirteen last season, I would have been thrilled. That would have been great. We’d have had a lot less sleepless nights.
One of the many great things about Scandal is the awesome Motown-y, soul music you use. Why’d you decide on that sound?
That was the music I grew up with. I just turned in the liner notes for the Scandal soundtrack, which was super fun. There are a lot of old songs. And then there are a couple of songs we used which were new. Fitz and Liv’s song, by the Album Leaf, is on there, which I know the fans love. I was 6 in 1978. That was the music I grew up with. It’s super cool to get to use it now, and it has exactly the right feeling.