The Unlikely Anatomy of a Hit Series

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Staying at home with an infant daughter, Shonda Rhimes discovered pretty quickly that there were basically two things to do:

  1. Change diapers
  2. Watch television.Shonda Rhimes

So the screenwriter watched, day in and day out. But, Rhimes told Time Magazine, she found the females on TV a boring lot.

"They seemed to exist purely in relation to the men in their lives. Women I knew were competitive and a little snarky and had their share of bad days. There wasn't a show out there about women who seemed like them," she said.

So, with her daughter Harper on her lap, Rhimes hammered out the first episode of Grey's Anatomy, a medical drama centered around five interns (three female, two male) in a fictional Seattle hospital. She stocked her pilot with the complex, ambitious, clever and confused women -- the type of people she knew in real life.

"They were my fantasy men," said Rhimes of Drs. Burke (Isaiah Washington) and Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), two senior surgeons. "They got to say and do things that I wish men would say and do."

Even as she put the finishing touches on the epic season two finale, the 36-year old Grey's Anatomy creator found it surprising that her initial foray into prime-time TV has turned into a monster hit. Grey's ranks among the top five prime-time shows, with nearly 20 million viewers a week.

The show has even left its mark on the pop culture lexicon: McDreamy, as in Dr. McDreamy, the nickname of neurosurgeon and heartthrob Dr. Shepherd.

The show's success has catapulted its creator into an exclusive club of TV writing/producing royalty, alongside J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias), Jerry Bruckheimer (CSI) and Dick Wolf (Law & Order).

The first African-American woman to create and executive-produce a top 10 network series, Rhimes signed a lucrative development deal last month with Touchstone Television to resurrect an old project, a series about female journalists. ABC has ordered a pilot episode, which will feature Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a memorable season two guest star on Grey's Anatomy.

Although more than half the characters on Grey's are African-American or female, Rhimes insists she didn't write race into it at all. Her pilot script contained no physical descriptions other than gender, but it came naturally to her to cast that way.

"Shonda sees the world through the eyes of human beings. That's the bottom line," said Washington, who says his role as the brilliant Dr. Burke has allowed him to break away from stereotypical thug roles.

ABC Entertainment chief Stephen McPherson agrees.

"Characterizations are definitely her strong suit, and characters are what drive great television," he said.

As for race, the show rarely approaches it, and when it does, expectations are turned on their heads. Three top doctors are black, and the character with the toughest childhood (Dr. Izzie Stevens) is white.

The youngest of six children (four girls) in a middle-class Chicago family, Rhimes says the banter of women is the most familiar sound in her world. In fact, her mother was the main inspiration for Dr. Bailey (Chandra Wilson), the no-nonsense, strong-willed resident and boss of the interns.

A 1991 graduate of Dartmouth (where Dr. Meredith Grey also attended), Rhimes first tried writing advertising copy, then novels, then movies.

Her films (The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, Crossroads, and HBO's Introducing Dorothy Dandridge) all deal with female protagonists who make plucky choices. Four years ago, Rhimes made a similar decision herself -- adopting baby Harper, despite being single and unattached. It is both fitting and ironic that her decision to take time off for motherhood resulted in her most successful work.

In addition to developing her news correspondents show and the next season of Grey's Anatomy, Rhimes is still under contract with Disney to deliver two more movies. She is adamant about keeping Grey's as a top priority, however.

"This is my other baby. I'm not leaving it," she said.

Steve Marsi is the Managing Editor of TV Fanatic. Follow him on Google+ or email him here.


What an interesting article. It was great to read because, while some of it I understood at a very basic level while watching the show, other aspects of Shonda's perspective I missed completely or perhaps took for granted. For example, one of the aspects of GA that I have always loved and appreciated is the use of race and ethnicity without reference to it. Whether main characters or patients in the hospital, race is completely irrelevant and the mix of people a strength of the show. With the addition of Calli, it is even more representative of the world we live in. What I didn't catch was Shonda's take on women. There are strong accomplished women on Grey's, but I guess I didn't notice because I, too, am surrounded by strong, accomplished women and simply took that part of it for granted. There are also strong men on the show. The best part, when you stop to think about it, is that no one plays a stereotypical character. Everyone has seen the shows where in order to make one race or one gender look good they have to portray the other as bumbling idiots. This show gives everyone strengths and evryone foibles. What a brilliant concept.


I tjink that moving oit to thursday is an awful idea i cant watch it or ill get frired and i can barley afford much as it is and its what i look forward to it gets me through the week and i agree thatGA should be on both saturday and sunday


I think that moving GA to Thursday is a BAD idea. I love to get together with my friends on Sunday and watch GA...It's a nice way to begin a new week. It also makes great Monday morning conversations at work.


I love GA and I would have to agree with the earlier post. The show shouldn't be moved to Thursday. The week is hectic enough as is. I know I never find time to watch tv during the week. I stopped recording things a long time ago, because I never had time to actually watch what I recorded. Also, I remember having friends that had never seen the show before and would catch me when I was watching and eventually they started watching it too. We were all excited that there was something good on Sunday night's, besides lame movies that we had all seen a dozen times. GA on Sunday is a great line up.




I agree about Sunday night. Please try to reason with the network; Grey's can certainly sustain Sunday nights AND a weeknight for (at least) the beginning of the next season. I, in Florida, travel on the weekends, but have (since the show started) made it a point to be home by the time Grey's comes on. This show has such massive, and emotional, appeal that a two-night airing is not only warranted-it is required. You have proven its need, not only in its timeslot, but in its voice. Initally, my boyfriend (in Seattle!) thought it the show was decidedly "female", but week by week, he was intrigued by the interplay and its honestly. Once we became exes, it became ever more potent that he should see a woman (Mer), so heartbroken; to have her tell McDreamy that he has no right to judge how she repairs her heart, both broke and restored my heart, and I knew that he would see that exchange on Grey's. Thank you for making women both strong and vulnerable. Thank you for making my prevailing daydream be that my ex sees me as even just a character on your show (because I am, as aforementioned, not one to demand undivided attention). I am not a drama queen. I am not a martyr. I am, however, a real woman, who can relate to Meredith, who struggles daily with whom she wants to be and who she really IS. In complete admiration- I say, "Thank you".


i read this somewhere before. i don't remember where....but i anyways. yeah i loved this interview. shonda seems like a REALLY cool person.


ok wow...
...greys anatomy=Lifee!!!! lmaoo calt wait till season 3!!!! ^_^


This is your baby; your fans make it a hit. You have the power, so use it. Tell them not to move Grey's from Sunday night. It is a bad move! Couples watch TV on Sunday nights. In the middle of the week someone is working, some one is tired and CSI and ER are already programmed on to the Tivos. Sunday leads to Monday conversations about the show. Friday everyone wants to get their work done and head home for the weekend to relax with their loved ones. Please tell ABC not to mess with a good thing. Moving Grey's anatomy to Thursday nights at 9 is a bad idea a very bad idea.
Everyone else write ABC and tell them Hands off Grey's Anatomy!


Grey's Anatomy Quotes

Did you say it? 'I love you. I don't ever want to live without you. You changed my life.' Did you say it? Make a plan. Set a goal. Work toward it, but every now and then, look around; Drink it in 'cause this is it. It might all be gone tomorrow."

Meredith (closing voiceover)

Burke was- He took something from me. He took little pieces of me, little pieces over time, so small I didn't even notice, you know? He wanted me to be something I wasn't, and I made myself into what he wanted. One day I was me Cristina Yang, and then suddenly I was lying for him, and jeopardizing my career, and agreeing to be married and wearing a ring, and being a bride. Until I was standing there in a wedding dress with no eyebrows, and I wasn't Cristina Yang anymore. And even then, I would've married him. I would have. I lost myself for a long time. And now that I'm finally me again, I can't. I love you. I love you more than I loved Burke. I love you. And that scares the crap out of me because when you asked me to ignore Teddy's page, you took a piece of me, and I let you. And that will never happen again.