April 15, 2021

Network TV Is Broken. So How Does Shonda Rhimes Keep Making Hits?

When “Scandal,” which is based very, very loosely on the life of the Washington crisis manager Judy Smith, had its debut last spring, it appeared to be a standard soapy procedural with a fizzy twist: the main character, the fierce Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), was having a torrid interracial affair with the president of the United States, a Republican named Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn). By the end of the first season, however, when the chief of staff was hiring an assassin to kill a former intern who slept with the president, the show had revealed itself to be much wilder than it initially seemed, a brash, addictive mixture of Douglas Sirk and realpolitik, and TV’s most outrageous spectacle.

In the second season, there has been a waterboarding, an assassination attempt and a mail bomb. Three women, a gay man and a sleazy oil baron successfully stole a presidential election. The president personally murdered a Supreme Court justice. One of Olivia’s staff members, a C.I.A.-trained assassin and torturer, sits in on A.A. meetings because he has an addiction to killing people.

As the audacity of “Scandal” has increased, so have its ratings. The series now averages an especially impassioned eight million viewers a week, making it the No. 1 drama at 10 p.m. on any night, on any network, among the most desired demographic, adults 18 to 49. It has also become a highly “social” show: on Thursday nights, Twitter becomes a giant “Scandal” chat room, fans of the show dispatching more than 190,000 tweets per episode, a good portion of which contain at least one “OMG.”

The font of all this fervid storytelling is Rhimes, who, at 43, is often described as the most powerful African-American female show runner in television — which is too many adjectives. She is one of the most powerful show runners in the business, full stop. Rhimes is among the few remaining bona fide network hitmakers; her pull at ABC is matched only by Chuck Lorre, with his three sitcoms at CBS, or Seth MacFarlane, with his three animated shows at Fox. Before “Scandal,” Rhimes created the hit medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” and, later, the sudsier “Grey’s” spinoff, “Private Practice,” which ended this past January after a six-year run. Channing Dungey, who oversees ABC’s drama development, describes Rhimes as “incredibly important” to the network. “If she came in tomorrow and said, ‘I have a great idea,’ I would jump at it.” Since 2009, ABC has given over its Thursday-night lineup to a solid two-hour Shonda Rhimes programming block.

Sitting behind her expansive desk, Rhimes continued to go through the script with her writers, finessing dialogue, addressing continuity errors and looking to sharpen the trademark “Scandal” tone. A writer noticed that the phrase “Cyrus is the mole” was repeated four times in an exchange. Rhimes told him not to worry. “It’s the rhythm of the conversation,” she said. “It’s going to be sexy. Trust me.”

As part of her Shondaland production company, Rhimes oversees some 550 actors, writers, crew members and producers, and her days are optimized to do so. In the morning, she gets her older daughter, Harper, who is 10, off to school and then contends with whatever is most urgent: writing, giving notes on a script and watching casting videos. The televisions in her office and home are connected to a system that allows her to watch real-time editing by her editors. Both of her daughters have rooms across the hall from her office at work. The younger, a perfectly chubby-cheeked 1-year-old named Emerson, comes in every day, clambering onto Rhimes’s lap during meetings.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 14, 2013

An earlier version of this article misidentified a film for which Shonda Rhimes wrote the screenplay. It is “The Princess Diaries 2,” not “The Princess Diaries.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/magazine/shonda-rhimes.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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