“I love that the gay White House chief of staff is threatening to pretend the first lady is a closeted lesbian,” Shonda Rhimes said to a roomful of writers. “It is so wrong. In the best way.” Ten of the writers — seven men, three women, five plaid button-down shirts and two pairs of outsize hipster glasses frames — were sitting in her bright Hollywood office, pens in hand, scripts in laps, going through notes for the 20th episode of “Scandal,” Rhimes’s gonzo political melodrama, which is about to finish its second season on ABC.
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.
As she does her rounds, Rhimes says hello to strangers in the elevator and tells one director, working late into the night, “You are so pretty and talented.” But she also has a no-nonsense authority, a matter-of-fact bluntness. After a discussion with her writers in her office goes on longer than she wants, she breezily ends it: “Don’t talk about it in here anymore. I’m done.” Not long into the first season, she said, she stopped taking network notes on “Scandal”; eventually, ABC stopped giving them. “What was great for me about ‘Scandal’ was I had earned a lot of political capital with the network,” Rhimes told me. “I had done ‘Grey’s,’ I had done ‘Private Practice.’ What were they going to do, fire me? I wasn’t worried about what anybody else thought. This one was for me.”
The sure manner with which Rhimes wields her power did not come naturally; it’s something she had to learn. Born in 1970 and raised outside Chicago, she is the youngest of six; her mother was a teacher who got her Ph.D. after Rhimes left for college, and her father is now the chief information officer at the University of Southern California. She un-self-consciously describes herself as a Tracy Flick-type, a good girl with her hand always in the air or her nose always in a book. After graduating from Dartmouth, she read an article in The Times that said getting into U.S.C. film school was harder than getting into Harvard Law and thought, This sounds like a really competitive thing to do. I’m going to do it.
She worked as a development assistant for a few years before selling a script on spec called “Human Seeking Same,” about an older woman who begins dating a man through personal ads. She then co-wrote HBO’s Dorothy Dandridge biopic, starring Halle Berry, and found steady work as a screenwriter, including “The Princess Diaries” and the Britney Spears vehicle “Crossroads.” In 2001, she rented a house in Vermont for a month with a plan to finish a screenplay. The first morning she was there, the twin towers came down. She spent the next few days in a state of anxiety. She made a list of all the things she most wanted to do in life, and at the very top was adopt a baby. Nine months and two days after 9/11, at 32, she adopted her daughter, Harper, and became a single mother. (She adopted Emerson last year.)
It was when Rhimes’s older daughter was an infant that she got turned on to TV. The baby wouldn’t sleep, so Rhimes would lay her on her chest while she watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Felicity” and “24.” “I thought, God, television is really good. And I’m really tired of writing about teenage girls and their makeovers.” She wrote a pilot for a show about war correspondents that stalled when the Iraq war started. Then she wrote “Grey’s Anatomy.” The show, about a bunch of great-looking, sharp-talking, bed-hopping, work-obsessed surgeons, became an unexpected hit in 2005.
When Rhimes began writing “Grey’s,” she had never worked in series TV, and she was paired for the show’s first season with a veteran show runner, James Parriott. Rhimes describes herself as a shy person, used to the solitary (and relatively powerless) pursuit of screenwriting, who found the experience of working with strangers stressful. The actress Sandra Oh, who has worked with Rhimes for nearly a decade on “Grey’s,” flat out laughed at me when I described Rhimes as having an intimidating boss-lady vibe. (I arrived for an interview 10 minutes early and knocked on Rhimes’s door; without turning from her computer, she yelled, “What!” I felt properly chastised.) “I don’t want to ruin her rep, but for me, that’s how she has changed,” Oh told me. “She was really a glasses-in-front-of-her-computer writer, a holed-up sort of person. What has changed is how she is with people, her understanding and acceptance of her power.”
Fundamental to this transition was the very public backstage fracas that consumed “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2006. Isaiah Washington, a lead actor on the show, used a homophobic slur against a fellow cast member, T. R. Knight, on the set. Washington publicly apologized and stayed with the show — until he was fired months later, following another incident and after much cast dissension. A year later, the disgruntled cast member Katherine Heigl publicly withdrew herself from Emmy consideration because, in her words, she hadn’t been “given the material . . . to warrant a nomination” — an overt salvo of dissatisfaction — but she remained on the show for three more seasons.
“There’s no big secret about our cast blowing up many, many times,” Oh said, “and to me, Shonda can do no wrong now, because she has a deeper understanding of what it is to be a true commander in chief.” Rhimes, while not addressing the incident specifically, agrees that she’s since learned “how to be a boss and a leader versus somebody who was like, ‘Holy crap, I get to write a show every week.’ ” But, she adds: “could I have lived without that lesson? Absolutely.”
In 1997, NBC canceled the sitcom “The Single Guy” after two seasons; it had an audience of 20.1 million people. This month, NBC is on the verge of renewing “Parks and Recreation,” which has an audience of 2.5 million, which tells you everything you need to know about the dwindling viewership for network TV. The highest-rated show this season among 18- to 49-years-olds — the demographic advertisers really care about — is not even a network show: it’s AMC’s “Walking Dead,” a cable show that drew a total of 12.4 million viewers for its recent season finale.
With 8.3 million viewers, “Scandal” stands alongside stalwart network hits like “CSI” and outpaces cable darlings like “Game of Thrones” (4.4 million viewers) and “Mad Men” (3.4 million viewers). Rhimes has found a way to make successful, popular, original dramas under the grueling, constricting conditions of network TV — 22 episodes a year; strict limits on language and subject matter; a fight about every sex scene. The key to the appeal of “Scandal” may be, simply, that it’s more fun than anything else on television. Rhimes often describes it as a show “I want to watch” — an emphasis that underscores her bedrock belief in the pleasure principle of TV.
Still, Rhimes observes that people, even the ones who like “Scandal,” describe it as “ridiculous,” which she can live with, or a “guilty pleasure,” which she ardently despises. The worst reaction, she says, is when people dismiss it as a show for women, the TV version of chick lit. “It’s superinsulting that because Olivia is a woman, and the girl who wrote ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ wrote this, it must be for chicks,” Rhimes says. “Like if it’s geared for women, it’s somehow not as serious as if it’s geared for men.”
These slights — that it’s just a prime-time soap opera — obscure the series’ ambition and intelligence. We’ve been trained by the great TV shows of the last two decades to think that quality television has to come draped in a shroud of somber respectability. But that’s just not Rhimes’s style.
Try this blind test: A politician and a workaholic have a passionate extramarital affair that endangers their careers and national security. A scheming Washington insider murders an innocent and makes it look like a suicide to further his own career. A person assumes a false identity after a gruesome incident and uses that identity to build a new life. To protect his legacy, a man preemptively murders a former ally once essential to his success.
These are all descriptions of plot points on “Scandal” — but also on “Homeland,” “House of Cards,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” respectively. “Scandal” may not look or feel like TV’s other prestige dramas, in which (usually male) antiheroes mix it up under the oversight of an (almost always male) auteur who has complex feelings about entertaining his audience. Rhimes feels no such ambivalence. Even more than Olivia and Fitz’s racy clinches, that’s what makes the show exciting: Rhimes is making a different kind of quality television.
“Scandal” is out of the melodrama closet. It embraces all the freedoms afforded a soap opera — the outlandish plots and juiced-up emotions — and it plays them out on a world-historical stage where typically marginalized people are at the center of power, doing exactly what the white guys usually do: making a sloppy, sordid mess of everything. Rhimes likes to point out that on her show, America is run by an African-American spin expert, a scheming first lady and a mercenary gay guy who also happens to be in one of the sexiest homosexual marriages on television. “I joked to Tony Goldwyn that on another television series, he’d be the pretty girl that all the men are trying to save,” Rhimes says. “That’s what he is, except he happens to also be the leader of the free world.”
In fact, except for a former assistant U.S. attorney, who lost his career thanks to Olivia, the leader of the free world is essentially the only straight white male central character on the show. From “Grey’s” to “Scandal,” Rhimes’s shows have been the most diverse on TV. Oprah Winfrey recently praised her in the Time 100, writing, “I grew up at a time when it was an anomaly to see people who looked like me on TV. [Rhimes] gets us — all of us! . . . Everybody gets a seat at Shonda’s table.”
Rhimes refuses to make an issue of her casting. “I think it’s sad, and weird, and strange that it’s still a thing,” she told me over the phone a few months ago. “It’s 2013. Somebody else needs to get their act together. And, oh, by the way, it works. Ratings-wise, it works.” In addition to its general success, “Scandal” is also rated No. 1 on network TV among African-American viewers.
While race on Rhimes’s shows is omnipresent, it is not often discussed explicitly. This has led to a second-order critique of her shows: that they are colorblind, diverse in a superficial way, with the characters’ races rarely informing their choices or conversations. Rhimes, obviously, disagrees. “When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah,’ ” she says. “That’s not how the world works. I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.”
This season on “Scandal,” race has been more openly discussed. In one scene, Olivia remarked to Fitz that she was feeling “a little Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson” about their relationship, one of the first overt references to its racial aspect. Rhimes had written the line into three previous scripts and taken it out each time. She finally included it, but only as a flashback, later in the show’s run but early in Olivia’s relationship with Fitz, when Rhimes knew it would have been on Olivia’s mind. “I don’t think that we have to have a discussion about race when you’re watching a black woman who is having an affair with the white president of the United States,” she explains. “The discussion is right in front of your face.”
With “Scandal” still new, and both it and “Grey’s” returning next year, Rhimes knows she should not start another series. Still, she is having some trouble convincing herself of that. She has a couple of projects she is eager to do, one of which is a show about “a woman carrying a gun and kicking people’s butts.” She is fond of “Alias,” the J . J. Abrams TV show about a female secret agent, and says: “I would have loved to have been the person who came up with it. I don’t think it’s been done by a woman. And that’s where my mind is.”
Part of what appeals to her about such a show is that, like “Scandal,” it is not what people expect from her. It irks her to be pigeonholed. “I was writing a hospital show for a very long time, and that became all that anybody thought that I could write,” she says. “It’s not that I want to do [a female-spy show] because people don’t think of me as doing it, but when I do say that’s what I want to do next, and some network exec says: “Really? Can’t you do one of your romance triangle-y things?” I want to strangle them. A romance triangle-y thing is not a show.”
When she has time, Rhimes likes to steal away to the “Scandal” Oval Office set. “To me, the awesomest part of my job is I get to type ‘interior Oval Office’ and know that someone’s going to build me an Oval Office, and I get to go play in it,” she says. Instead of a ceiling, her Oval Office has a huge lighting rig, the trees outside the windows are fake, the snapshots behind the president’s desk are staged and a copy of Jon Stewart’s jokey textbook about America sits underneath the coffee table. But the carpet is plush, blue and emblazoned with a seal; the room is large, quiet and stately; and the big, leather desk chair swivels. “I don’t know how this is going to come off sounding,” Rhimes says, but like her character, Olivia Pope, “I’m in a position of power where I run this world and handle this situation. . . . If I’m going to make a crazy decision, then I better be damn sure. Because it’s not like anybody’s going to tell me, ‘You can’t do that.’ ”