Television's most influential creator is poised to reshape the streaming landscape, just like she did with prime time TV
Shonda Rhimes and I are deep into a conversation about what makes a healthy work environment when she has to stop me from saying something ridiculous. I’ve been waxing indignant about the professional world’s unfair assumption that employees with kids are not fully present at work.
“But I’m not fully present at work,” Rhimes, who is TV’s highest-paid and, arguably, most successful showrunner, as well as a single mother of three daughters, interjects. We’re in the sitting room of a midtown Manhattan hotel suite that, with its tasteful cream-and-wood decor, feels like the natural habitat of Rhimes’ elegant Scandal heroine, Olivia Pope. I don’t need to have kids myself to sense that she’s onto something, and I can see her mentally racing toward a more incisive read.
“I don’t think anybody who has kids is fully present at work,” she tells me, speaking as quickly as one of her hypercommunicative characters, but with a deliberateness that suggests she’s already processed these thoughts. “The idea of pretending that we have no other life is some sort of fantasy out of the 1950s, where the little lady stayed at home. I don’t have a little lady at home. So if I am excelling at one thing, something else is falling off. And that is completely O.K.”
She’s right. How could someone who’s responsible for at least one small, vulnerable human—responsible in a real way, not in a ’50s-dad way—ever be fully present when that child is out of earshot? The problem isn’t that people can’t help but bring their whole lives to the office; it’s that workplaces fail to accommodate those lives.
This is not the kind of sentiment you expect to hear from a person known for her work ethic. At her most prolific, Rhimes was responsible for producing around 70 episodes of TV across up to four ABC dramas each year. Then in 2017, she signed an industry-shaking deal with Netflix that the parties reupped this past summer at a reported value of $300 million to $400 million, complete with a “significant raise” and a five-year extension.
It was not a foregone conclusion that her jump from network prime time to the platform that has become the vanguard of the streaming revolution would prove so remarkably successful. In 2017, Netflix was still midway through its own transition from licensing the bulk of its library to producing an endless torrent of original programming. Creators with Rhimes’ clout, from Ryan Murphy and black-ish mastermind Kenya Barris to Beyoncé and the Obamas, inked their Netflix deals in subsequent years. And instead of immediately cranking out content—as her production company Shondaland did at ABC after forming in 2005, and the way Murphy has done, sometimes to the detriment of his shows’ quality—Rhimes slipped off the pop-cultural radar for a few years.
But if one thing has become clear about Rhimes, it’s that she has little use for conventional wisdom. And why should she, when her own instincts have so often yielded superior results? Now, she’s getting ready to release the highly anticipated second season of Bridgerton, the steamy Regency romance that is Netflix’s second-most-watched original show ever. She’s also stepped back into the role of creator for the first time in the decade since her ABC smash Scandal. Inventing Anna, a limited series about the real high-society scammer Anna Delvey, debuts on Netflix on Feb. 11.
For the millions-strong global audience that not only watches her shows but also listens to Shondaland podcasts and consumes content on Shondaland.com—and for the 50 staffers the company employs following the transition to Netflix—Rhimes’ approach isn’t just effective. It also feels truer to the complexity of human existence in the 21st century than any set of axioms that worked for white guys in gray flannel suits generations ago.
FIRSTS Shonda Rhimes – 2017 Interview[video id=00ANn7Md]
Rhimes’ aversion to the path of least resistance is a recurring theme in her origin story. The youngest of six, she was born in 1970 and raised in the Chicago suburbs by parents in academia. “I grew up in a family where hard work was not optional,” she wrote in Year of Yes, a best-selling 2015 memoir that traces her transformation from wallflower writer to confident public figure. A solitary child who would entertain herself by constructing elaborate fictions, Rhimes matriculated at Dartmouth with dreams of becoming an author but ended up earning an M.F.A. in screenwriting from USC’s film school. The program caught her eye when she read that it was harder to get into than Harvard Law School.
After graduating in 1994, she broke into film, scripting the 1999 HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry, and Britney Spears’ 2002 big-screen debut, Crossroads. Then, as she told Oprah in 2015, the 9/11 attacks brought home that “If the world is gonna end tomorrow, there are things that I need to do.” The most urgent was motherhood. She adopted her eldest daughter, Harper, now in college, and committed to raising the baby without a co-parent.
Rhimes pivoted to TV in the early 2000s, following an inevitable immersion in the medium while at home with her infant, and secured a deal with Touchstone/ABC Studios. She teamed up with producer Betsy Beers, another film-industry alum who shared a passion for character-driven stories. “From very early on, it was clear that Shonda was incredibly curious,” Beers recalls. The partnership is still going strong two decades later.
An early pilot script about female war correspondents never made it to air. Grey’s Anatomy, which followed a cohort of attractive, ambitious surgical interns and combined the eternal appeal of a hospital show with a soapy yet self-aware vibe, proved more palatable to the network. As a first-time creator, Rhimes defaulted to her own judgment. That meant color-blind casting—which yielded Sandra Oh as cool, cutthroat Dr. Cristina Yang, the platonic soulmate to Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey—and OR scenes that didn’t shy away from blood and guts.
As Rhimes recalls, ABC didn’t push back on her less conventional choices. “Nobody said, ‘There are too many people of color on that show,’” she tells me now, sitting on an ivory wraparound couch, between sips of coffee. But ABC didn’t recognize its potential either, debuting Grey’s as a mid-season replacement with an order of just nine episodes. In one early interview, Rhimes joked that she waited so long to hear whether the show would make it onto the schedule, she was ready to start “selling episodes out of the trunk of my car.” Now, she reflects, “I just don’t think they knew what they had.”
But viewers got it immediately. Grey’s premiered on March 27, 2005, and quickly became a phenomenon. The first season’s finale attracted more than 22 million viewers. By 2007 it had a successful spin-off in Private Practice. And although its audience has shrunk, like everything on network TV, and Rhimes handed off showrunning duties to Shondaland vet Krista Vernoff in 2017, Grey’s is now midway through its 18th season. Even before ABC announced, on Jan. 10, that the show would return for season 19, its run was among the longest in prime time.
Before she was an executive, a superproducer and a media mogul, Rhimes was a writer. So central is this vocation to her worldview that what unites most Shondaland protagonists is that they too are storytellers. (“I’m horrified that you pointed that out,” she laughs, when I ask her about it, “because I had not noticed that myself.”) Inventing Anna’s Vivian Kent is a journalist, while her subject Anna Delvey’s entire life is a self-constructed fiction. Pseudonymous Bridgerton narrator Lady Whistledown is a gossipmonger among London’s gentry. Scandal’s D.C. fixer Olivia and Annalise Keating, the exacting lawyer and professor at the center of creator Peter Nowalk’s Shondaland hit How to Get Away With Murder, are professional builders of compelling counternarratives to messy truths. Even Grey’s is framed by Meredith’s (or sometimes another character’s) voice-over.
One reason for the latter show’s longevity is that it has always been funnier, sexier and more cognizant of its own excesses than predecessors like ER and Chicago Hope. The female characters are exhilaratingly ferocious, from the independent Cristina to Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), a secretly bighearted surgeon who’s so tough on her interns they call her “the Nazi.” But what really set the show—and just about every subsequent Shondaland title—apart from anything else on TV was the rhythm of its storytelling.
The prototypical Shonda Rhimes screenplay is like a 42-minute dance track: the tempo builds and builds until finally the beat drops, in a series of last-act twists to be untangled in next week’s episode. Observing how quickly her mind works in conversation, it occurs to me how dramatically that preference for briskness manifests in her stories. Like pop lyrics, her dialogue is laced with choruses (“You’re my person,” Meredith and Cristina tell each other, repeatedly) and callbacks (Olivia and her sometime lover the President have a recurring fantasy in which they move to Vermont to make jam). As such, while these lines sometimes look trite on paper, they gain emotional resonance through repetition and intensity.
Rhimes’ second zeitgeist-snatching hit for ABC, Scandal, upped the velocity—and defied network norms—even more than Grey’s. Inspired by a meeting with crisis-management guru and George H.W. Bush Administration alum Judy Smith, Rhimes cast Kerry Washington as Smith’s fictionalized counterpart, Olivia. When the series premiered in 2012, Washington became the first Black woman to play the lead in a prime-time network drama since the mid-’70s. If that sounds inconceivable now, it’s probably because of how rapidly Scandal changed the TV landscape, leading to roles for Black women like Taraji P. Henson in Empire, Viola Davis as Murder’s Annalise and the stars of Zahir McGhee’s recent ABC musical drama Queens.
By the mid-2010s, when ABC started airing a Thursday-night lineup of Grey’s, Scandal and Murder that the network dubbed TGIT, an archetypal Shondaland heroine had taken shape. She was smart, strong, gorgeous, successful and still driven to achieve. Though in most cases she strove to do good, an allergy to failure made her prone to ruthlessness. In its original cultural context—a TV universe heavy on male antiheroes and light on female agency—that version of the Shondaland protagonist felt refreshing. These women wanted things, worked hard, made tough choices, loved fiercely, fought with impossible parents, then went home and drank about it.
“There was a brand that I specifically created for ABC. It has some hallmarks, and one of them is fierce, incredibly successful career women,” Rhimes says. “It was highly successful and highly financially viable for them.”
But one season’s breakthrough is the next season’s new normal, and at that point saturation becomes inevitable. The pop-feminist renaissance Rhimes helped launch was diluted by a wave of imitations, from Téa Leoni in Madam Secretary to Piper Perabo’s cable-news tycoon in Notorious. Shondaland’s own output grew redundant; the downside to zooming through plot points at five times the speed of most other shows is that all the bed-hopping and betrayal can become too predictable after a few seasons. Procedurals like The Catch and For the People served watered-down Rhimes characters. In 2017, Shondaland’s first foray into period drama, Heather Mitchell’s Romeo and Juliet sequel Still Star-Crossed, was canceled after a single season.
Meanwhile, the culture at large was starting to question the wisdom of celebrating wealthy, powerful, assertive women just for being wealthy, powerful and assertive. When Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso popularized the term girlboss in a 2014 memoir, and her company declared bankruptcy just two years later, it was open season on girl power for anticapitalists on the left and misogynists on the right. Soon other female business leaders who’d come up espousing feminist values were losing control amid reports that they treated their employees poorly. By the end of the 2010s, the Shondaland brand had begun to feel a bit anachronistic. So too did network TV, as the streaming wars heated up and the young social-media-savvy audiences that fueled Shondaland’s rise decamped for Netflix and YouTube.
Rhimes has little patience for a backlash to pop feminism that she views as just more misogyny. “I think the girlboss archetype is bullsh-t that men have created to find another way to make women sound bad,” she tells me, more exasperated than defensive. The word girlboss, as Rhimes sees it, is “a nice catchphrase to grab a bunch of women into one group and say, ‘This is what women are doing right now.’ Nobody ever says, ‘This is what men are doing right now.’” Such flattening of female identity doesn’t sit right with a woman who’s spent her career crafting unique female characters—who come off as aspirational, in large part, because they rise above sexist assumptions.
Which is not to say Rhimes believes that the way a leader treats her employees is irrelevant so long as she is a woman. Over the years, Shondaland has grown from a vehicle for Rhimes’ own creations to a platform to also shepherd other creators’ work to a multimedia force; Rhimes essentially runs a mini-studio under the Netflix banner, a digital publisher since the launch of Shondaland.com in 2017 and a podcast network since Shondaland Audio was announced in 2019. During that rise from showrunning phenom to mogul, she has put quite a bit of effort into creating a workplace that reflects her own feminist ideals.
“In the span of a year we went from nine employees to 50. There are a lot of things that go into running a company, in terms of culture,” Rhimes says. That has meant building out offerings aimed at fans and extending relationships with cast members, through Shondaland.com articles on politics and clothes and podcasts, produced in collaboration with iHeartMedia, by stars such as Inventing Anna’s Laverne Cox. In perhaps its most ambitious project to date, Shondaland Audio has optioned the Washington Post story “Indifferent Justice”—about a serial killer whose dozens of murders went unsolved for decades because he preyed on marginalized, often Black, women—in partnership with Surviving R. Kelly creator dream hampton.
And as Rhimes herself has become a household name, part of that work involves aligning the company’s identity with what she calls “brand Shonda,” which leveraged Year of Yes into a deal that made the creator a face of Peloton in 2021.
Rhimes and Beers have also taken responsibility for creating a work environment that takes employees’ needs into account. “I don’t want to sound sexist, but I never tried to lead like a man,” Rhimes says. “I was a single mom with kids. The idea that I would lead any differently than my needs required never occurred to me.” There is, for instance, a playroom at the offices. Katie Lowes, an Anna cast member who played Quinn Perkins on Scandal and now hosts Shondaland Audio parenting podcast Katie’s Crib, says that when she was pregnant and shooting Scandal, “I had a PA who would get me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when I had cravings.”
The way Rhimes describes her approach to management could be read, by one familiar with the frustrations that catalyzed her departure from Disney-owned ABC, as a rejoinder to bosses who undervalue employees. A buzzy 2020 Hollywood Reporter profile included the allegation that she moved to Netflix after a “high-ranking executive” at the company replied to her request, amid contract negotiations, for an extra Disneyland pass by demanding, “Don’t you have enough?”
Her frequent collaborators cite supportive, detail-oriented staffers and an atmosphere of cooperation over competition as the reason why they return to her sets. “It is a chaos-free environment,” says Anna Deavere Smith, the actor, playwright and academic who appeared in For the People and is now developing an adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns for Shondaland. Smith recalls, “I had a question about hair early on in For the People. I was nervous to raise it,” because Black hair has so often been a third-rail topic. But “all of a sudden, I’m in a meeting with the head of hair and Betsy and the director. That’s never happened before in my career.”
Unlike writing, helming Shondaland as a manager and mentor didn’t come naturally at first. Though Rhimes enjoys fostering a happy workplace, she doesn’t necessarily enjoy management tasks. But as with everything, she was determined to excel. That has entailed becoming conscious of the reality that “leadership style is the thing that trickles down.” If, say, she wants employees to log off outside work hours—and she does—then she has to resist sending late-night Slack DMs that they might feel pressure to address.
For Rhimes, adhering to the boundaries she sets for her employees and offering them the same flexibility and independence she enjoys simply comes down to practicing what she preaches. “I wouldn’t want a workplace that didn’t feel equitable for me,” she says, “so why would I want a workplace that didn’t feel equitable for anybody else?”
If this second act of Rhimes’ TV career has expanded her responsibilities and influence, it has also expanded her palette as a writer and producer. No longer tethered to the network procedural template, she has at Netflix offered up new kinds of stories and heroines while continuing to satisfy fans’ demand for fast-paced, suspense-packed shows that center on fascinating women.
Adapted from Julia Quinn’s period romance novels, Bridgerton, which dominated social media for weeks following its December 2020 premiere, displayed a refreshing frankness about sex in all its hot, hilarious and confusing glory. Rhimes worked closely on the inaugural season with Chris Van Dusen, a first-time creator but longtime member of the Shondaland family. The 19th century English setting ensured that the characters would include none of the “incredibly successful career women” who were once a fixture of Shondaland. Instead, early episodes track the machinations of plucky debutante Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), who falls for a dreamy duke played by Regé-Jean Page. Like the books, each season will focus on the love life of one of eight Bridgerton kids.
Read more: Netflix’s Bridgerton Is Fun, Luxe and Wildly Uneven
Van Dusen and Rhimes casually (and a bit confusingly) tweaked history in order to cast plenty of BIPOC actors as aristocrats, including the queen. Quietly radical though its reimagining of British period drama is, the show’s nonchalance about race also reflects Rhimes’ career-long conviction that identity markers need not be central to character—a sensibility that separates her work from that of many millennial creators of color. Lushly produced, with swooning romance, sumptuous costumes and elaborate balls, Bridgerton is the kind of show that seems like it should’ve been a no-brainer in a post–Downton Abbey world but that no one thought to make before Rhimes read Quinn. Rhimes seems equally baffled. “It’s very obvious to me,” she says. “Then again, a show with a woman of color as leading lady is obvious to me as well. That Grey’s had a cast that looked like the world is very obvious to me. I don’t know why anybody else wasn’t making them.”
The appeal of Inventing Anna, the first show that credits Rhimes as creator since Scandal, also seems obvious for a storyteller who specializes in complicated women. Based on Jessica Pressler’s 2018 New York feature, it toggles between two quintessentially New York worlds: media and high society. Anna Delvey (Julia Garner, doing the oddest vaguely European accent that has ever actually worked), a 26-year-old Russian-born scammer posing as a German heiress, faces grand-larceny charges in connection with shady fundraising for an arts center. In pursuit of Anna is Pressler surrogate Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), a disgraced, pregnant journalist who’s desperate to redeem herself by getting to the bottom of the Delvey deception. The project also requires some scheming on Vivian’s part, because Anna isn’t sure she wants to talk.
Upon reading Pressler’s story, Rhimes was immediately intrigued by Delvey’s chameleonic nature. “She was such a complex, interesting, unknowable person,” the creator says. “If she had been a man, would she have gotten in so much trouble? Would people have even been as fascinated by her? If Anna Delvey had been what is typically called a hot chick, would people have been so outraged?”
I assume the woman who created Olivia Pope is aware of one of the oldest PR tricks in the book: answer the question you wish they had asked. But Rhimes doesn’t play that game. If I pose a question whose premise doesn’t sit right, she tilts her head, bouncy curls spilling over one shoulder of her turtleneck—perplexed but not unkind—and takes a moment to think before explaining why.
So when I ask why she thinks her shows tend to become era-defining sensations, she demurs. “I don’t make shows and wonder, Is this going to be part of the cultural zeitgeist?” she says. She’s not moving on from heroes who might be read as girlbosses to messier or more lighthearted protagonists because the discourse has turned against them. But the best popular artists channel the mood of the culture intuitively, and Shondaland’s first two Netflix series feel right on time—albeit in completely different ways.
Inventing Anna might oversell Delvey’s Robin Hood qualities. But in its own glossy uptempo way, it is as critical of the super-rich as Succession or The White Lotus. “You understand why someone like Anna would do what she did,” Rhimes says. “Because we press everyone’s nose to the glass of a different kind of life, and then we tell them they can’t have it.” The show will emerge into a post-Trump cultural conversation where scammers occupy an almost aspirational place in pop culture; gall, guts and ingenuity—often met with grudging admiration, if not unconditional praise.
In conversation and in her work, Rhimes demonstrates an abiding aversion to hypocrisy, and so it bothers her that Delvey served almost two years while certain Presidents and Wall Street bankers walked free. “People were outraged by her arrogance, her use of social media to create a frenzy around herself—all things that we applaud in many a person right now,” Rhimes says.
Meanwhile, she has put her convictions, antithetical to those of her latest protagonist, into action in the political sphere, including in a divisive 2016 election ad for Hillary Clinton that found Shondaland actors connecting their characters’ strength to the nominee’s. Rhimes has sat on the boards of Time’s Up and Planned Parenthood. Anna Deavere Smith, who spent time with her on a planning committee for Barack Obama’s presidential library, observes, “She takes the world around her seriously, even as she is doing entertainment. And it will be in American history the way that things politicians do have been in American history.”
Yet Rhimes insists that her shows are not intended as political statements: “I don’t like to be preached at, and I’m not interested in preaching.” As important as she feels it is, particularly as Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance, that viewers get to see beloved women, including Olivia Pope and Cristina Yang, terminate unwanted pregnancies without shame, her loyalty as a writer is to story and character. In fact, with politics and the pandemic leading so many into despair, she has grown weary of the dark tone endemic to a certain kind of prestige drama. Hence the progression from Scandal’s sinister D.C. (Rhimes wrapped up that Obama-era show “when it felt like the world had caught up to the stories we were telling”) to the fantasy that is Bridgerton, which brought comfort to the winter of a COVID-stricken world’s discontent.
The show—whose second season, debuting March 25, will center on Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey)—is slated to become a franchise as Rhimes pens a spin-off about breakout character Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), based on a real British queen who may have had African ancestors. Other ambitious projects Shondaland and Netflix announced early in the partnership are moving forward, from the Warmth of Other Suns deal with Smith to an adaptation of Silicon Valley gender-equity activist Ellen Pao’s memoir Reset.
But more of the escapism Rhimes says she craves these days could be on tap in the form of VR and video games, both of which are cited as mediums for development in her Netflix contract. These technologies simply offer more space for doing what she loves: telling stories. She is still awed every time she sees the words she types realized in physical spaces crafted by artisans and populated by actors, even now that she understands how the magic of TV is made, better than just about anyone. “She also understands what it takes to make that much television: What does that look like in PR and marketing?” says Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s head of global TV. Amid all that stress, Bajaria says, “She’s done a beautiful job never losing the quality of writing.”
When you’ve been in the game as long as she has, adapting to tectonic shifts in the medium and industry she’s built her career around, it has to come back to those basic building blocks. “I always used to joke, people turned 12 and discovered Grey’s Anatomy. That’s been happening for 18 years now. At this point, it’s sort of generational. We’re building communities, and those communities are having children, watching their shows together.” At home, in the office, or wherever it is that life as we recognize it actually takes place. —With reporting by Julia Zorthian