Shonda Rhimes (my conversation partner) and I are deeply engaged in an exchange about the characteristics of a healthy workplace environment. She then interrupts me by saying something completely 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. If I excel at one thing it is likely that something else is failing. 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.
Photograph taken by Djeneba Aduayom at TIME
It isn’t the type of sentiment that you would expect to hear from someone known for her hard work. Rhimes produced around 70 TV episodes across four ABC dramas per year at her best. 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. Netflix was only halfway through the process of licensing its vast library and producing endless 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. She shouldn’t, as her instincts are so superior to conventional wisdom. 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. Anna the InventorA limited series on Anna Delvey (a high-society fraudster) debuts on Netflix February 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. The 21st century is more complex than the axioms of the past, which were largely applicable to white males in gray flannel shirts.
Rhimes’ aversion to the path of least resistance is a recurring theme in her origin story. She is the youngest of six children. Her parents were academics and she was raised in Chicago’s suburbs. “I grew up in a family where hard work was not optional,” she wrote in The Year of YesHer transformation from a wallflower writer into a confident public person is the subject of her best-selling 2015 memoir. Rhimes began her education at Dartmouth as a solitary, aspiring author. But she earned an M.F.A. instead. in screenwriting from USC’s film school. When she found out that Harvard Law School was more difficult to get in, the program caught her attention.
She graduated in 1994 and went on to write the HBO film “The 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. Harper was her oldest daughter. Harper is now in college and she has made it clear that Harper will be raising Harper herself.
Rhimes switched to television during the 2000s after a long and painful experience with the medium at home. Betsy Beers (another film-industry alum) joined her to create a team. They shared a love for stories that are character-driven. “From very early on, it was clear that Shonda was incredibly curious,” Beers recalls. This partnership continues to thrive two decades later.
A pilot script about female war correspondents was never airworthy. Grey’s Anatomy,It followed an ensemble of talented, young surgical interns. The network found it more enjoyable to watch, as it combined the timeless appeal of a hospital TV show with a soapy but self-aware style. Rhimes was a novice creator and had to trust her 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.
Ellen Pompeo (left) as Meredith Grey, Sandra Oh, and Cristina Yang Grey’s Anatomy.
Peter Stone—Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images
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’sAs a replacement for the mid-season, with a minimum order of 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 it was instantly understood by viewers. Grey’sIt premiered March 27, 2005 and quickly became a hit. The first season’s finale attracted more than 22 million viewers. In 2007, it was an extremely successful spin-off. Private PracticeEven though its viewership has declined, as with everything else on TV network TV, Rhimes gave showrunning duties in 2017 to Krista Vernoff, a Shondaland veteran. Grey’sIt is currently halfway through its 18th season. As some speculate, it would last the longest time in primetime even if they end this spring.
Rhimes, before becoming an executive and superproducer in the media industry, was also a writer. It is so important to her worldview that Rhimes was a storyteller. (“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 Escape MurderProfessional builders of convincing counternarratives for 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 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. It is amazing to see how fast her brain works when she speaks. 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). Although these sentences may seem repetitive and monotonous on paper, their emotional resonance is enhanced by repetition and intensification.
Rhimes’ second zeitgeist-snatching hit for ABC, Scandal, upped the velocity—and defied network norms—even more than Grey’s.After meeting George H.W., a crisis management guru, Rhimes was inspired to create the character of Olivia Smith. 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 ScandalTelevision has changed, and Black women such as Taraji P. Shenson have been given roles on the screen Empire,Viola Davis Murder’s Annalise and the stars of Zahir McGhee’s recent ABC musical drama Queens.
Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, Viola Davis, and Annalise Kating in a special TGIT Crossover Episode of How to Escape Murder.
Mitch Haaseth—Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images
In the middle of 2010, ABC began airing a Thursday-night program. Grey’s, Scandal MurderThe Shondaland archetypal heroine, TGIT, was born in the form of the network dubbed TGIT. She was strong, smart, beautiful, successful, and determined to reach her goals. Although she tried to help others in all cases, her allergy to failing made it more difficult for her to be ruthless. 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 SecretaryPiper Perabo’The cable-news mogul 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 Peopleserved Rhimes-style characters with watered-down names. In 2017, Shondaland’s first foray into period drama, Heather Mitchell’s Romeo and JulietFollowing Still Star-Crossed,The show was cancelled after one season.
During this time, culture was beginning to question whether it made sense to celebrate assertive, wealthy women for their assertiveness and power. The term was popularized by Sophia Amoruso, founder of Nasty Gal. girlbossHer 2014 memoir revealed that the company she owned declared bankruptcy two years later. This was open season on anticapitalists’ and misogynists’ girl power. Soon other female business leaders who’d come up espousing feminist values were losing control amid reports that they treated their employees poorly. Shondaland’s brand began to feel somewhat anachronistic towards the end 2010s. 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 lacks patienceShe views pop feminism as more misogyny and a counter-response to it. “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.
Rhimes does not believe that the manner in which a leader treats employees is important, as long as they are women. 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. Rhimes has spent a lot of time and effort to make her workplace reflect her feminist ideals during her rise from showrunning mogul to phenom.
“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. It has involved expanding offerings for fans, as well as enhancing relations with cast members. Shondaland.com features on politics and clothing and podcasts from stars like Pompeo are some examples of this. Anna Invented’s Laverne Cox. Shondaland Audio has taken over the Washington in its largest and most ambitious venture to date. 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 R. Kelly Survives 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 YesA deal was struck that gave the creator Peloton’s face 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 AnnaQuinn Perkins played on by Quinn Perkins, a cast member ScandalShondaland Audio now hosts the parenting podcast Katie’s Crib,She relates that she shot the following: Scandal, “I had a PA who would get me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when I had cravings.”
Rhimes could describe her management style as a rejoinder for bosses who value 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?”
Many of her collaborators point to the supportive and detail-oriented staff members, as well as an environment that encourages cooperation rather than competition. “It is a chaos-free environment,” says Anna Deavere Smith, the actor, playwright and academic who appeared in People and is now developing an adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other SunsShondaland. 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.”
Rhimes (second from right), with the cast and crew of Grey’s AnatomyDuring its initial season, 2005.
Craig Sjodin—Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images
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. She was determined, as she is with all things, to succeed. 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.
Rhimes believes that adhering with the boundaries set for her employees is key to giving them the freedom and autonomy she loves. “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?”
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,The show, which was a huge hit on social media, had a surprising honesty about sex. It also featured a lot of funny and confusing videos. Rhimes was closely involved in the creation of the first season, which she co-produced with Chris Van Dusen (a long-time Shondaland member and creator). 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. Each season, like the novels, will be centered on one of the eight Bridgerton children’s love lives.
Van Dusen, Rhimes and a little bit of confusion manipulated history to cast many BIPOC actors in the role of 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. With swooning love, elegant costumes and lavish balls, it is lushly produced. Bridgerton is the kind of show that seems like it should’ve been a no-brainer in a post–Downton AbbeyQuinn was the first to think of it. Rhimes appears equally puzzled. “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. It was that simple. Grey’sI had casts that seemed to be very evident. I don’t know why anybody else wasn’t making them.”
Appeal of Anna the InventorThe first television show to recognize Rhimes’s contribution since 1996 Scandal,It is also obvious to a storyteller who works with complicated women. Based on Jessica Pressler’s 2018 New YorkThe feature toggles between media and high-society New York. Anna Delvey, a Russian-born fraudster posing in the role of a German heiress and 26-years old, is facing grand-larceny allegations for her alleged involvement with fraudulent fundraising to support 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? What if she had been a man? Would they have been just as fascinated by her? If Anna Delvey had been what is typically called a hot chick, would people have been so outraged?”
Julia Garner (left), a new star on Shondaland, is starring alongside Kate Burton, Rhimes vet. Anna Invented.
Assume the womanThe creator of Olivia Pope knows one of the most classic PR techniques in the book: Answer the question they wish they’d 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.
She scowls when I ask her why her shows have become such era-defining moments. “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.
Anna Invented might oversell Delvey’s Robin Hood qualities. However, in its own upbeat glossy style it criticizes the super-rich. SuccessionOder 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.
Rhimes displays a deep resentment for hypocrisy in conversation as well as her work. It bothers Rhimes that Delvey was only allowed to serve almost two years, while Wall Street bankers and Presidents were 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. WadeIt is in jeopardy that the viewers will see loved women like Olivia Pope or Cristina Yang end unwanted pregnancies. Her loyalty as a writer to story and characters is hers. She has become weary of dark tones that are associated with prestige dramas, as politics and the pandemic have led so many people into despair. The progression of 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. Shondaland also announced several other exciting projects in partnership with Netflix, including the following: Warmth of other Suns deal with Smith to an adaptation of Silicon Valley gender-equity activist Ellen Pao’s memoir Reset.
Rhimes claims that VR and gaming are providing more of her escapism these days. They give Rhimes more room to do what she loves, telling stories. Even though she is able to see the characters she writes in spaces created by artists and populated with actors, she is still amazed at the wonder of it all. “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. —By reporting Julia Zorthian
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