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.


Grey's Anatomy Quotes

Arizona: Oh my God! I mean, I understand why you're into her. She's hot. Wait, she likes you?
Nathan: What? I mean, I'm going to try not to be offended at that.
Arizona: No, no, no. It's just that Derek was--Derek was epic for her. They were the great love story. I mean, that girl's heart beat for Derek Shepherd. It never occurred to me that she would ever be with anyone else. He was perfect. He was everything. That man turned her world. It...I spooked you. Don't be spooked.

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)