How Shonda Rhimes Transformed TV, From 'Grey's Anatomy' to 'Bridgerton' and Everything In Between
By Jennifer Drysdale
"Society is built to make women question their worth from the moment they're born," Shonda Rhimes told The Hollywood Reporter last October. But, praising her parents, the TV titan said she was "just never raised that way."
Instead, Rhimes' parents, both academics, instilled confidence and curiosity in her -- and empowered her to break the mold, despite any obstacles in her path. It's what she's been doing since she started working in television, and even in the seven years before, when she had to "sell CDs to buy gas."
Rhimes still found some success in her early days in Hollywood; she co-wrote 1999's Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry, wrote the 2002 Britney Spears film Crossroads, and wrote 2004's The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. But by 2005, she had transitioned to TV with Grey's Anatomy, and subsequently became a TV-making machine. She was producing approximately 70 hours of annual television at ABC before deciding to take a gamble and sign a multi-year development deal with Netflix in 2017.
Shondaland, after all, was built at ABC. The production company -- which has produced all 17 seasons of Grey's Anatomy, seven seasons of Scandal and six seasons each of Private Practice and How to Get Away With Murder, among others -- even dominated ABC's Thursday night lineup in 2014 with a slate of Shondaland series under a "Thank God It's Thursday" banner.
A Shondaland show was instantly recognizable. It found relatable moments within over-the-top circumstances, delivered powerful, convincing monologues, and perhaps most identifiable was its positioning of powerful, dynamic female characters in center stage.
"Gay, straight, single, divorced, lost, searching -- everybody gets a seat at Shonda’s table," Oprah Winfrey wrote in a 2013 Time tribute to Rhimes. And there's a reason for that.
"It’s who is telling the stories," Rhimes explained, "because the people telling the stories are the people deciding who you see onscreen, they’re the people who are deciding who are in the writers rooms, they’re the people deciding on the crew."
Rhimes propelled and empowered stars like Viola Davis, Kerry Washington and Ellen Pompeo (who made headlines in 2018 for discussing her $20 million a year salary for Grey's, which made her the highest-paid actress in dramatic television). The showrunner's series generated more than $2 billion for ABC's parent company, Disney -- but as she told The Hollywood Reporter, she wasn't happy.
"I felt like I was dying," Rhimes told THR last October, recalling the quick pace and constraints of network TV. "Like I'd been pushing the same ball up the same hill in the exact same way for a really long time."
And her breaking point came soon after. After months of unsuccessful negotiations about a new multi-year deal in early 2017, the catalyst for Rhimes' departure from ABC came during a trip to Disneyland, during which a high-ranking executive scoffed at her request for an extra pass, allegedly asking, "Don't you have enough?"
Furious, Rhimes hung up and called her lawyer, instructing them to find her a way out of ABC and into Netflix. That August, the news became official, and Rhimes became the first creator to ink an overall deal with the streaming service. In the years since, creators Ryan Murphy and Game of Thrones' David Benioff and Dan Weiss have signed overall deals with Netflix, as have Barack and Michelle Obama and Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.
At the time, Rhimes did what she was used to -- she put her head down and she worked. She did few interviews about the deal, and didn't correct stories misreporting her salary. Then, Pompeo's confidence in discussing her own payday inspired her.
"How can I inspire anyone if I am hiding?" Rhimes asked in a powerful acceptance speech for the Elle Luminary Award in 2018. "I am the highest paid showrunner in television. And I deserve it."
Netflix announced that year that Rhimes' first project under their new deal would be Inventing Anna, an adaptation of the New York magazine story based on the real-life story of the controversial society fraud Anna Delvey. The project marks the first series on which Rhimes will serve as creator, writer and producer since Scandal. And in the meantime, the producer has gifted fans with Bridgerton.
The period drama, based on Julia Quinn's novels, debuted on Dec. 25 and weeks later became the most-watched series on the platform, seen by 82 million households. It was renewed for a second season on Jan. 21, putting to bed any concerns about a post-ABC Shondaland.
Though Bridgerton is created by Chris Van Dusen, it's no less Rhimes' success. Van Dusen started in the industry as Rhimes' assistant in the early 2000s. Three years later, he began writing on Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, eventually becoming co-executive producer of the latter.
"Working directly with Shonda for so long, it became really clear that she has this amazing ability to seem to always know what audiences want to see, and to create these characters that are relatable yet still nuanced and flawed," he said in an interview published on Shondaland's official website. "I learned that it wasn’t just about exploring these varied worlds and characters, but always at the end of the day having something to say about the world too, without ever feeling preachy. I think that’s something you learn how to do coming up through the ranks on Shondaland shows."
And true to Shondaland form, Bridgerton is breaking barriers. Inspired by the historical debate over Queen Charlotte's possible African ancestry, Bridgerton is set in a universe rich with people of color in the upper echelons of society. It's not "color-blind," as Van Dusen explained to The New York Times, "that would imply that color and race were never considered, when color and race are part of the show."
Rhimes has at least 12 other projects in development at Netflix -- including a romance thriller, a time-travel drama and a coming-of-age comedy -- and a legion of fans ready to see what comes next from the powerhouse who took a risk that paid off.
"Demanding what you deserve can feel like a radical act," Rhimes said in her Elle acceptance speech. "We need to support the incredible powerful women around us. We need to encourage that power. We need to delight in it. We need to make sure the power of other women is enjoyed and celebrated."