Of all the TV creators I've met over the years, two have consistently stood out as the most challenging to interview: David Chase and Shonda Rhimes. There's never been any hostility, but they stand apart from their showrunner brethren in their insistence on answering only the questions they want to answer, and only if it's asked in a way they find acceptable. Many showrunners have learned the PR trick of responding to a question they don't like by answering a different question altogether, but Rhimes and Chase will simply announce their disagreement with the premise of the question, or their lack of interest in answering it. (Chase, for instance, hates to explain the meaning of any one “Sopranos” scene or episode too much, while Rhimes all but shuts down whenever she's asked about either upcoming storylines or her legacy as an African-American female producer.) You have to stay on your toes and be ready to radically change course at a moment's notice if they're not interested in where you're trying to take the conversation.
As Rhimes put it at one point in our conversation earlier this week, “I happen to like debating, and I like to debate like a lawyer, and I can argue any points to death, and I will.”
But if she's a tough interview, she's also a fascinating one, and not just because – though she would never want to discuss it herself – her long-term impact on the medium is likely to be as great as Chase's has been. “Grey's Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How to Get Away with Murder” – the first two created by Rhimes, the latter produced by her and created by Pete Nowalk – are all popular hits (even going into its 12th season, “Grey's” has ratings many of ABC's competitors would kill for), and their diverse casts have helped to literally change the complexion of television the last few years. (It's hard to imagine FOX, for instance, being so gung-ho for “Empire” without the “Scandal” phenomenon happening first.)
She has three shows at the moment, all scheduled on one night in a way that has turned her into as big a part of the marketing campaign as Ellen Pompeo, Kerry Washington, and Viola Davis, and she's always developing more. And when you get her on a subject she likes to talk about – say, how the processes of writing “Grey's” and “Scandal” differ – she will gladly talk your ear off.
So my goal in interviewing her, two days before tonight's return of what ABC marketing has dubbed #TGIT, was to try to find topics (and ways into those topics) that would avoid triggering any of her usual alarm bells. We made it through a long conversation – which covered the responsibilities she has on each show, her plans to end “Scandal” sooner rather than later (and why she hasn't yet discussed specifics of that with ABC), and how and when she's okay killing off “Grey's Anatomy” doctors – with her only disputing the premise of a couple of my questions, and with her only seeming reluctant to answer a question at all when we got to the subject of Davis's emotional and historic Emmy win on Sunday night, which ties into the attempts to frame her legacy as anything beyond being a kick-ass storyteller.
Which I get, and which is why there's much storytelling discussion here.
How did you feel watching the Emmys on Sunday night?
Shonda Rhimes: I watched portions of them. I thought they were fun. It was nice. I really liked watching Viola's speech. I thought Viola's speech was amazing, but Viola's speeches are always amazing. And I loved seeing Regina (King)'s speech, which was very heartfelt as well. And I'm a huge fan of “Veep,” which was nice.
I'm curious about your process, particularly with “Grey's” and “Scandal.” Different showrunners who are as prolific as you are, like Milch and Sorkin, have different methods. What is your actual role in the writing of each script for those two shows at this point?
Shonda Rhimes: It's different for both shows. Both shows evolved differently. I don't know, because I've never done any television but my own, but I call “Grey's” a more traditional room process, in that writers sit in a room, someone's at the board, we break an episode, the writer go away, writes an outline, there's a script, I poke my head in and give notes, and then maybe I'll do a rewrite, and maybe I won't. Now that we're in season 12, that's not necessary. Last season I feel like I wrote every episode myself. But I didn't. There was a lot of rewriting for me, but that was because we were transitioning from one set of people running the room to another set of people running the room, and we were changing story on the fly, as we were sending people off into the wilderness, and redefining what our stories were going to be. So it was a lot of me having my hands in the pie. But because we're in season 12, it's not so much me having my hands in the pie as much as me directing what the story is and where the story's going. I'm still the person who says what's going to happen to everybody, and I'm still the person who defines the tone. Every year, we try to make “Grey's” a completely different show. So I define the tone, and I can tell you who's going to do what, where, why, and how. It would be awesome if it wasn't me doing that, if there was another person doing that, but I don't know, it's just the way it's always been. But I have a roomful of amazing writers who write beautifully. So in a lot of ways, once the training wheels came off of my two head writers, I've been able to step back and relax, and just poke in my head and say, “Here's what happens next,” and they create these amazing scripts.
“Scandal,” we're in season 5 now, so we're a little bit older, but it's a very different process. We break every script in the room. We write every outline in the room. Because everything is so woven together, there's no way to have somebody go off and write an outline. Zahir (McGhee) and I sort of did that with “The Lawn Chair” (last season's standalone episode where Olivia interceded in a case where a black teen was killed by a white cop) but even that, we took it back to the room, so there's no way to do it. It's nearly impossible, just because of how intricate the stories are, and how interwoven everything is, and how, honestly, we can't tell you what's going to happen from one episode to the next . So we do that in the room, and nobody ever leaves that room. I come in and go out as much as I can. In the past year, I feel like it's been a little bit less as we've been doing development, and moving into new stuff. But, honestly, that's where I spend most of my time. I brought “Grey's” writers over to this lot so that I could be in and out of both rooms as much as possible.
And what's your role with Pete and “How to Get Away”?
Shonda Rhimes: My role for Pete is Pete will come downstairs, throw himself on the sofa in my office, and every once in a while say, “What do you think about this? What do you think about that?” Or say, every once in a while, “Can you look at a cut and tell me what you think about it?” My favorite part of the role is that I help him with the (Standards and Practices) notes. I feel like that's my only active active role. In general, Pete really knows what he's doing. Pete is the real thing. So honestly, I'm just a person for him to bounce ideas off of. I'm not a person who is sticking my hands in his pie, which is delightful.
Okay, so let's talk about Standards and Practices. Your shows have pushed some boundaries over the years on all of these shows. What's your relationship like with ABC Standards and Practices at this point, and how does that compare to a decade ago?
Shonda Rhimes: I always dispute the concept that we push boundaries. We do not push boundaries. I feel like we play very creatively within the fences that we've always had. I respect the fact that we have these fences. It's a really awesome challenge to do stuff creatively within them. I feel like we have a really good relationship. I don't believe that it's adversarial. We've been working with the same people for years and years and years. They are smart. It's not as if they're out to get anybody. They have a job to do, and we have a job to do. I happen to like debating, and I like to debate like a lawyer, and I can argue any points to death, and I will. But I really do feel like there is an attempt right now, just in general, to maybe push the line back a little bit. I think in our country, we're so oddly puritanical about the wrong things. You literally can shoot someone in the face on television and a 7-year-old can watch it. But you can't show the slight of a man's hip, because dear God, someone might think of sex. And while we all hope our kids grow up to have sex, we do not hope they grow up to shoot someone in the face.
Can you think of an example of a fight that got particularly complicated and passionate?
Shonda Rhimes: I think they're all complicated and passionate, even when they're small. Because I get passionate about everything. I can't think of anything in particular. We fight for everything, because I feel like if we stay within the boundaries, then we we feel righteous about it. And honestly, if we feel like we haven't, then I'd say we have to take it out.
At TCA in the summer, you explained exactly why you felt you had to kill off Derek in order to preserve what his relationship with Meredith really meant. But you've killed a number of other doctors before that; the doctors have even joked about what a dangerous place that hospital is. Do you reach a point where you become reluctant to go to that particular story well, or has the show just been on so long that you have to treat every instance on a case-by-case basis, without worrying about what you might have done 5 or 7 years ago?
Shonda Rhimes: I think I reached a point where it became clear that it's the world of the show that we live in, in an interesting way. It is the universe that we exist in. I mean, three doctors have died. So it's not like we have killed a million doctors. Three doctors have died. Really.
When Michael O'Neill marched through the hospital, he killed several guest star doctors. (After this conversation, I did the math. Just counting doctors played by cast regulars, four have died: George O'Malley, Lexie Grey, Mark Sloan, and Derek Shepherd.)
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, that was a spree killing. But I do think that in the world that the show exists in, which for me is a world of extreme life or death, no matter what, there's a lot of life and death. Yeah, at a certain point, those were the stories we were telling. I just was following whatever felt like the stories we were telling. When we reached the Derek point, let me tell you, I had already said, “Nobody else is dying!” I had moved to the other side of it and said, “We have come out into the light. Yay, us!” And then we had this storyline that we had to tell, and I was so frustrated with the concept that we had to do this. But I really was like, “What, he's going to walk out on his family? That is absolutely untenable.” And I also knew we could tell it beautifully in a medical way.
You've said in the past that “Scandal” is not a show that can run indefinitely. Do you have an idea yet when and how it's going to end?
Shonda Rhimes: I have an end point in mind, I know how it ends. there's a plan.
How long ago did you figure that out?
Shonda Rhimes: I knew when we started, if we lasted past season 2, when we were going to end.
Showrunners often talk about needing a little while to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of their shows. When you and I spoke midway through “Scandal” season 2, you disputed the notion that the show was appreciably different from what it had been in season 1. So I assume you never needed a Eurkea moment in the process of making that show?
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah. It's interesting. I'm sitting here going, “Would I argue now that it's the same show?” It is in essence, and yet… I feel like the storytelling hasn't changed, it's the same show. I know the characters and this world. But it's a completely different animal, I suppose, than it was even last season. It's much more focused on a different side of the world now. It's a different show.
The scale of the show has gotten bigger, as well as the things that have happened to Olivia, to Fitz, to everyone. This goes back to the death question on “Grey's”: is there a limit to that? Is there a point at which you can't push the reality of the show past where it doesn't make any logical sense, or are the characters so well-defined that you can do anything with them?
Shonda Rhimes: I really don't think there's a world in which you can do anything with anybody. I think that's not a place that this show exists in. Because we're in the world of the White House, I think there are certain things you can do, and larger things that can happen, but I don't think you can do anything.
So things get pitched in the room that are dismissed as being fun, but too out there even for “Scandal”?
Shonda Rhimes: Oh, yeah. We've gone through a lot of story in that way, and just dismissed it completely, because there's no way to tell that story and have the character be the character, or have it make sense for where you're going and what you want to do.
Can you think of an example?
Shonda Rhimes: I am terrible with examples. I can never think of them when anybody asks for an example. I don't know. Let me think about it while we talk.
Okay, while you think about that, let's talk cast changes. “Grey's” has cycled through a lot of doctors over the years, “Private Practice” did some of that, and “Scandal” has added a bunch of characters, while also dropping a few. Sometimes, like with Derek or Izzie, character exits are beyond your control, but when it's your decision to bring in or get rid of someone, how do you know when and how to do that?
Shonda Rhimes: Sometimes, we add people because we know what story we're going to tell next and how much story that's going to take up. We like the energy they add, we like the new challenge they're going to add, if we're adding someone. Subtracting is different. Sometimes you subtract because you have to, because of budget, I suppose, and sometimes you subtract because you already knew what story you were going to tell and that story was over. We've had some finite story times. “Grey's Anatomy,” we wrote “dying young guy dies young” about Denny Duquette. If you already have plans, then you already have plans.
But say, for instance, when you bring in a new class of interns to the hospital, some of them stick and some don't. Are you just looking at which actors have chemistry with your regulars, or at specific stories you can tell?
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, it's harder. That's really hard. Frankly, you reach a point where you have make some decisions about who's going to be a series regular and stay. It's all about the deal-making. And who you can afford and who you can't. You have to make hard choices that way, and you have to think, “When I'm building story, who am I going to build with, and what plans do I already have in my head?”
And in terms of the actors who got promoted from a minor role to a major one, is there anyone who, if you were to go back to tell the Shonda who created the show, she would be very surprised to learn would become so important?
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah. I can say that about Bellamy (Young), who plays the First Lady. She has two lines in the pilot, and I've always liked her as an actor; we've used her in “Grey's” and “Private Practice.” She was designed to be almost a person who was unknowable. Because I felt like, “Oh, we're never going to be able to stay with Liv if we know the First Lady that well.” The more we got to know her, the more interesting the whole thing became to me. And that actress, Bellamy has been spectacular, and wonderful to watch. The more I wrote for her, the more fun she is to write for. So it's been great.
Does Mellie's increased level of prominence, and the sympathy that the show at times displays for her, change that end point at all from what you envisioned when the series started?
Shonda Rhimes: It didn't change my end point for my main character, no, which is really where your show begins and ends. It begins with your main character. It didn't change that. It changed one aspect of how the show is going to end, but it didn't change that piece of it.
Have you and Paul Lee discussed the show's end point yet?
Shonda Rhimes: No, we haven't talked about it.
How do you anticipate that conversation going, given what the show means to the network, but also what you as a producer mean to the network overall?
Shonda Rhimes: I don't know. I'm very respectful of ABC and my job, and of the relationship that I have with them. It will be a conversation. I think that's why I'm not running around telling people when I think it will end, because I think that's completely inappropriate. But I also think it's a conversation nobody wants to have. I don't even want to have it. I love working here and working with these people. Part of me doesn't want to have it. So we'll have it when everybody feels ready to have the conversation.
Okay, have you thought of any specific examples of “Scandal” pitches that were too extreme?
Shonda Rhimes: No. I really wish I could think of something. This is ridiculous, but it's a ridiculous thing we always say. Whenever nobody can think of what to do in the writers room, we always spend several several several hours pitching how the show can go full vampire. And we think it's hilarious.
Quinn Perkins as a vampire. I can see that.
Shonda Rhimes: I know. We thought it could be great. We're like, “They can all live forever, the white hat shines at night.” It's all fantastic.
Finally, I want to go back to Viola's Emmy win. I know you hate to talk about your legacy, and I understand why. But watching her give a speech for an award that no African-American actress had ever won, for a show you produce, did you feel any sense of pride in being a part of that moment?
Shonda Rhimes: I think Viola's extraordinary, and it was incredibly powerful to see that beautiful woman stand on that stage and give a lot of little girls a vision of what their dreams could be. I think that was amazing. I think Viola's speech said everything.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com