Discerning Authorship in Shonda Rhimes' Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal

Curator's Note

Informed by lagging ratings from primetime NBC monolith ER and Sex and the City's end on HBO, Shonda Rhimes' first franchise showrunner venture, Grey's Anatomy premiered with a focus on two ambitious hospital interns involved with their superiors. Throughout all three of her ABC series, the powerhouse carries a steady two-fold thesis: to include a diverse cast not defined by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexuality, while portraying career-driven women in no hurry to settle down as principal protagonists.  She thrives on fast-paced "walk and talk" workplace ensembles, tough and topical dilemmas, and convoluted professional and personal lives filled with steamy romances. With her second showrunner endeavorGrey's spinoff Private Practice, an established neonatal surgeon continues her success amidst several inter-office relationships. 

Rhimes' most recent project, Scandaldeparts from the medical melodramedy and into the political melodrama/thriller. The series centers around crisis management "fixer" Olivia Pope, a D.C. power player implicated in a secret affair with her former boss, the American President. As a black female showrunner, Rhimes introduced the first black female main character on a network drama since 1974.

In Jason Mittell's "Authorship in Serial Television" chapter from Complex TV,  he highlights Rhimes as one of the few visible contemporary female showrunners. With 30 Rock's finale, this is now even more manifest. Her critical and commercial success grants an unlikely level of freedom on ABC, making her a rare study. I am particularly interested in the limitations of showrunners' authorship and creative control based on their respective channels, a union between media industry studies, textual analysis, and feminist television criticism. And while her series are not typically categorized as Quality Television, she exhibits liberal ideologies and varied dynamics to a wider audience than a narrowcasting show on premium cable. She has also received accolades from NAACP and GLAAD. (Sidenote: Rhimes chastized Bunheads for its lack of diversity but is a fan of Girls.) 

Rhimes is fueled by storytelling and character. Like any auteur, her own professional and personal life is naturally an inspiration. She incorporates colorblind casting, while interracial and LGBT couples are commonplace. Her leading workaholic heroines eschew domestic proclivities for careers. Their social lives and marriage proposals are subsequently often put on hold, and the mistress-as-protagonist trope is evidently quite pervasive. 

How do Rhimes' trio of series, along with her influential production company Shondaland, contribute to distinguishing and further developing the study of authorship in television? 


And here's a timely article on Forbes that places Rhimes as Disney's top earner on network TV: http://www.forbes.com/sites/meghancasserly/2013/05/08/how-scandals-shond... It even briefly mentions her cultural primacy and role as a showrunner as significant to those earnings, based on the steady audiences she's gained since Grey's premiere a decade ago.

Though I am several years late, I wanted to say how much I enjoyed your piece, Stefania. I also feel your observations about the recurring traits of Shonda Rhimes' shows still apply in the present day. I can still see these elements in the Shondaland programs currently on television. These traits are especially evident on the shows that have appeared on the air in the time since your post's original publication, such as How to Get Away with Murder and The Catch. I also like your choice of Shonda Rhimes as the subject of your post. I find her work as a showrunner and the U.S. television industry's treatment of her fascinating. Thus, I always enjoy seeing studies on Shonda Rhimes and/or her shows. Thank you for curating this post.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.