Shonda Rhimes is the thirtysomething creator of Grey's Anatomy, a show about Seattle surgical residents that is currently the hottest drama on television, beating Desperate Housewives and NBC's Winter Olympics coverage this month. In its Feb. 19 episode, Grey's averaged a 10.8 rating/24 share in 18-49s and 24.3 million viewers, beating CBS and NBC—combined. The show's Sandra Oh won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress, and the mostly—67%—female audience has fallen hard for such characters as Patrick Dempsey's “Dr. McDreamy.” Rhimes, a Chicago native who studied film at the USC School of Cinema-TV, tells B&C's Mark Robichaux what sudden success feels like, why race is not an issue in the show and why soundtracks are so important.
How does it feel to have one of the biggest TV audiences in America?
It's a little bit surreal considering that last year we didn't even have a time slot. Last year at this time, we had no idea if we were ever even going to go on the air, so it's pretty amazing. I feel like the loyal audience has sort of always been there. I mean, we have the same numbers all along. It was really wonderful for the Super Bowl episode to have so many people join in, you know? Sort of join in the fun and discover the show for the first time, that was really exciting. I feel like we've had a core audience that stuck with us for a long time and now we've got new converts.
Unlike other medical shows, like ER, there isn't a big focus on medicine. Why not?
I think that the show is very much a show that's about the relationships that the doctors are having. I always say that the show is not so much about the patients and the surgery as it is how our doctors feel about the patients and the surgeries. It's not a show that's about patients' dilemmas; it's how you have a personal life and stay human while doing a job in which people expect you to be superhuman.
What I love is that we reveal doctors as people, as opposed to heroes. They have their heroic moments but the reality of it is they're doing surgery and talking about their boyfriends. Or they're worried about how they're going to pay the rent. They're not necessarily always thinking in heroic terms of saving lives.
I think it makes them human and it makes us feel like we know them and can have a stake in what's happening with them.
Why is there a soundtrack to every episode? Do you pick that music?
I pick the music. Alex [Patsavas] is our music supervisor, who also happens to be the music supervisor for The O.C.
She gives me a pool of music to select from every week. I think there's something fresher and younger about a show—and not younger in The O.C. way but just younger in terms of the MTV Generation way—that uses songs that are sometimes ironic, that sometimes play against the scene rather than using just a traditional score. Probably some of the most fun that I have working on the show is placing songs. I felt like the music was really a huge part of the show.
There's criticism over the lack of strong minority characters in television, yet the minority characters in Grey's Anatomy seem to be more heroic. Is that intentional?
It's not necessarily intentional. We have a really diverse cast, which was important to me that we bring in actors of every color for every role. I wanted a world that looked like the world I lived in. You said that they seem to a lot of times be the heroes. Well, one of them is the chief of surgery, one of them is the resident that trains the interns, and one of them is a surgeon. And like all of the other characters, they are at times petty, heroic, tired, angry, not interested in their jobs, interested in their jobs. I feel like they're three- dimensional characters, which, when you only have one character of color in a show, doesn't necessarily get to happen. So I don't necessarily think that they're intentionally heroic.
I don't think anybody is color-blind in this world, do you know what I mean? I think I'm a product of being a post-feminist, post–civil-rights baby born in an era after that happened, where race isn't necessarily the only thing discussed. And I just felt like there's something interesting about having a show in which your characters could just be your characters.
What's ahead for Dr. McDreamy?
I can't tell you, honestly. Something terrible happens, and bad stuff follows. Well, perhaps, perhaps. Honestly, I couldn't tell you.