Shonda Rhimes is the first African-American woman to create and executive produce a top-ten network series. When her drama Grey’s Anatomy—about a group of interns and their superiors at Seattle Grace Hospital—first premiered as a midseason replacement in March 2005, it was immediately embraced by critics and audiences. Devoted fans identified with the sensitive, deeply conflicted title character, Meredith Grey, her very handsome, very empathic (and, as it turned out, very married) love interest, Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd, and her sharp-witted and ambitious best friend, Cristina Yang, among others. Rhimes’s strong suit is characterization and vivid dialogue, and she envisioned Grey’s Anatomy not as a traditional medical drama but as “a relationship show with surgery” and “a world in which you felt as if you were watching very real women.” Though many consider Grey’s greatest strength its color-blind casting and “its ability to show the subtleties of race, like real life” (in the words of media columnist Ken Parish Perkins), Rhimes simply believes in choosing the best person for any given role. “I’m a post–Civil Rights baby. I’m not trying to make a point. This is just the way the world looks now,” she says. “I don’t spend my days dealing with the fact that I’m a black woman as much as I do dealing with the fact that I’ve got work to do and I’m in charge.”
Rhimes was born in Chicago and grew up in south suburban University Park, one of six siblings. Her father is a university public information officer; her mother, a college professor (and the role model for Grey’s no-nonsense Miranda Bailey), entered academia when her children were grown.
After receiving a BA from Dartmouth College in English literature and creative writing, Rhimes took a job in advertising. She hated it, quitting after a year. She moved to California and earned an MFA from the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinema-Television—where she won the prestigious Gary Rosenberg Writing Fellowship. Soon after, she sold her first screenplay, Human Seeking Same, about an older black woman who finds love through the personal ads. The film was never made, but Rhimes went on to write the screenplays for the short film Blossoms and Veils (1998) and the feature films Crossroads (2002), with Britney Spears, and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004), starring Julie Andrews. She also worked as research director on the documentary Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, which was nominated for an Emmy Award and an Academy Award.
Rhimes did not especially enjoy writing for the big screen; the completed films were not what she had initially envisioned. She was happier working in television, where she could have more control over her work. In 1999 she earned her first wide recognition for her teleplay for the HBO biographical film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, with Halle Berry portraying the beautiful, strong-willed actress whose career and love life were tragically affected by racism in the fifties.
After the tragic events of 9/11, Rhimes—who had long wanted to be a mother—called a lawyer and began the proceedings to adopt a child. “Nine months and two days after 9/11,” her daughter, Harper, was born. “I named her after Harper Lee,” Rhimes later said. “Now I can’t remember what I did with my time before she got here.”
As a teenager, Rhimes had been inspired by The Cosby Show. Seeing a black family on television “was a really big deal at the time I was growing up,” she recalled in 2006.
Staying at home with her infant daughter, Rhimes watched a lot of television. She was bored by the women she saw on television, who seemed to exist “purely in relation to the men in their lives.” Determined to present a realistic picture of women—women who were competitive “and a little snarky” at times—she wrote the pilot for Grey’s Anatomy. She chose to write about a hospital partly because she had a tendency to watch real-life surgery on the Discovery Channel and partly because she had enjoyed her days as a teenage candy striper at a hospital in Illinois.
Rhimes came up with a wonderful ensemble of players headed by Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey, a sensitive young woman who grew up with unloving parents (and who must compete with her mother’s legendary status in the medical field). Among the other doctors at Seattle Grace are Sandra Oh (Cristina Yang), Patrick Dempsey (Derek Shepherd aka “McDreamy”), T. R. Knight (George O’Malley), Katherine Heigl (Isobel “Izzie” Stevens), Justin Chambers (Alex Karev), James Pickens, Jr. (Richard Webber) and Chandra Wilson (Miranda Bailey). In a controversial footnote, one of the other original cast members, Isaiah Washington, who played the imperious surgeon Preston Burke—Dr. Yang’s fiancé—was bumped from the series at the end of the 2006–07 season after making controversial remarks about fellow cast member T. R. Knight’s homosexuality.
Rhimes’s concept for Grey’s Anatomy emphasized the commonality of workplace relationships combined with the life-or-death situations that hospital employees must deal with every day. When she wrote the pilot, she had no idea about which characters would be black, white, or Asian. As she said to Oprah Winfrey, “The script was written with no character descriptions, no clue as to what anyone should look like—except for [resident doctor] Miranda Bailey. I pictured her as a tiny blonde with curls. But then Chandra Wilson [an African-American actress] auditioned, and…I thought, That’s exactly who Miranda is.”
“We read every color actor for every single part. My goal was simply to cast the best actors,” says Rhimes, who oversees every aspect of production—even selecting the contemporary music that will underscore each episode. (Each episode title, incidentally, is a song title.)
The medical cases seen on Grey’s Anatomy may seem far-fetched at times—in one of the series’s most memorable episodes, “Into You Like a Train,” a man and a woman were both impaled on the same pole (which, it’s been said, was not only a story line, but also a metaphor for Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd’s traumatic relationship)—but Rhimes and her colleagues go to great pains to present cases that are realistic: The show employs a full-time medical adviser, and one of the writers is actually a practicing emergency room doctor.
Earlier this year Grey’s Anatomy was honored with a Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series. Audiences around the world have taken the series to heart, in large part because Rhimes is not afraid to present the characters as living, breathing people with very real strengths and flaws. “Her characterizations are definitely her strong suit,” says ABC Entertainment chief Stephen McPherson, “and characters are what drive great television.” And in regard to race, Grey’s quite often turns viewer expectations upside down: three of the original leading doctors (Preston Burke, Richard Webber, and Miranda Bailey) are black, the character who had the toughest childhood (Meredith Grey) is white, and the Latina orthopedist (Dr. Callie Torres, played by Sara Ramirez) is from a well-to-do family.
In September 2007, the Grey’s spin-off Private Practice premiered on the same network as its older sibling, ABC. The spin-off focuses on McDreamy’s ex-wife, Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh), an obstetrician who moves to Santa Monica to get her life back together. Rhimes is the creator and executive producer of Private Practice and also one of its writers. Also in the pipeline for Rhimes is a dramatic series about journalists and some additional projects for Disney.
For her work on Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes received the 2007 Television Producer of the Year award from the Producers Guild of America as well as a Lucy Award for Excellence in Television from Women in Film and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Writing in a Dramatic Series. In addition, Grey’s Anatomy won a 2006 Writers Guild Award for Best New Series.
Betsy Beers, an executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy, attributes Rhimes’s good fortune to some typically Midwestern characteristics: An appetite for hard work and ability to learn quickly. “There’s a real no-nonsense quality about her,” says Beers.
Rhimes herself phrases it a bit differently, quoting the motto at Seattle Grace Hospital. “Suck it up and move on, grin and bear it. That’s very Midwestern—that grit-your-teeth mentality. You just keep going.”
“I really try to make a show that I would want to watch. If I don’t want to watch it…it doesn’t go in the show. Part of that is [creating] very specific characters—great, interesting personal stories. And a large part of that is romance. We all want the fantasy.”