The most amazing thing about ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy is not that a serial medical drama managed to break out and become one of this season’s biggest hits. It is that its creator, head writer and showrunner is a 34-year-old woman who, prior to this, had never written, run or even worked on a television series in her life.
Shonda Rhimes already had several feature films under her belt. She penned Crossroads, starring Britney Spears; The Princess Diaries 2; and HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry. But working in series television never occurred to her.
“I always thought I would write movies. But I adopted a baby, and you can never leave the house again when you have a baby. So I was home in the evening, and I was falling in love with shows like Felicity and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Rhimes’ first shot at a TV pilot revolved around female war correspondents—a bunch of feisty women covering an imaginary war while having a lot of sex and fun along the way. “But then the real war broke out,” she says, “and that wasn’t such a good idea anymore.”
Her next attempt kept the intensity but changed the setting: surgical interns making their first rounds in a teaching hospital. “My sisters and I had always been addicted to surgeries. I’d be watching one on Discovery Health, and inevitably the phone would ring. It would be one of my sisters saying, 'Are you watching this?’” The inadvertent research paid off. Grey’s Anatomy was born.
“SOMETHING SEXY ABOUT SURGERY”
“There’s something very sexy about surgery,” Rhimes says. “You actually have your hands in someone else’s body. That’s a rare and amazing job. And it is like war correspondents: They are both groups of people who work and play together in an unbelievably competitive and intense environment.”
Part of what works so well about Grey’s is the show’s sex appeal. The cast members are individually charismatic, but they have great chemistry. The show was written as cast-colorblind, so Sandra Oh’s hyper-competitive Christina Wang initially had no last name, and “the Nazi,” played to gruff perfection by African-American Chandra Wilson, was first conceived as a petite blonde.
“It never occurred to me to do it in any other way,” Rhimes says. “My age group is post-civil-rights, post-feminist babies, and we accept that we live in a diverse and interesting world. We don’t sit around talking about race, so Grey’s doesn’t feel particularly fresh or special to me. It feels like the world.”
Actor Isaiah Washington initially auditioned to play Dr. Derrick Shephard, love interest of title character Meredith Grey (played by Ellen Pompeo). When Patrick Dempsey won the role, there was no part for Washington. It left him “sick,” he says. But Rhimes kept Washington in mind, and when the actor originally cast as surgeon Preston Burke fell out, Washington got a callback. “I knew I could never be wrong in my heart about something so good and so genuine,” he says. “Her writing just seemed very complex, very honest.”
BIG NUMBERS OUT OF THE GATE
Steve McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment, discovered Rhimes early, giving her a deal at Touchstone when he was still running the studio. And he championed Grey’s Anatomy from the beginning, purposely holding it to midseason so the pilot could be perfected and ABC could launch the show with the network’s full marketing arsenal behind it.
In March, Grey’s posted big numbers in its first outing, airing after mega-hit Desperate Housewives; it finished the season bigger than ABC’s other hot show, Lost. “Grey’s was similar to Desperate Housewives,” McPherson says. “Both shows are about the human condition, and they are accessible. They also both appeal to female viewers, and research shows that women respond earliest and then bring other audiences with them.”
“SHE UNDERSTANDS STORY”
Adds Debra Chase, producer of Princess Diaries 2 and other films, for whom Rhimes interned while getting her master’s degree at USC Film School, “She understands story. She understands how to handle emotion, action and humor and how to meld all of those pieces into one. She understands structure, which is critical to development, and she’s good with dialogue. Most writers can’t do all of that. But Shonda just gets it.”
The success of Grey’s has changed much for Rhimes, who just signed a two-year development deal with Touchstone and is penning two movies for Disney. “I went from sitting at home and writing in my pajamas to going into an office every day and working with a team of writers.” Besides writing and editing Grey’s scripts, she makes decisions in all areas of the show, from costumes and hairstyles to editing and music.
“When some writers come out of features, they are blindsided by the pace of TV,” says James Parriott, a TV vet who shares show-running responsibilities with Rhimes. “Shonda thrives on it.”