In praise of Shonda Rhimes

Sadly, anything written about Shonda Rhimes in the past few weeks has to start with a rebuttal of the ingnorant New York Times piece that labelled her an “angry black woman”. Here is my own.

Firstly, use of that “Yes massuh” type of backward thinking phrase alone should serve as a reasonable marker of the irrelevance of the piece anyway. And even removing the two irrelevant words from the ignorant phrase by the boring white woman, Allesandra Stanley, I can’t see the anger. One of Rhimes’ greatest strengths, that under normal circumstances would wait until halfway through this article, is the fact that she includes all manner of marginalised ethnicities, sexualities and worldviews with the characters in her series, and then promptly treats them as extraneous to the actual character. Skin colour, bedroom practices and opinions are quick hooks for characters that fast become largely irrelevant when faced with the actual business of what they’re like as people. Essentially, Shonda Rhimes treats people in her shows like actual real life people, where the only real division is the good ones and the shites. Maybe this perspective comes easier as the result of being from a marginalised community, but I cannot even assume that, having had the luck to be born white, male, able bodied and middle class in a first world country, and thus never having had first hand experience of persecution for anything, save for my own idiocy.

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With that out of the way, may I start by saying that Shonda Rhimes is a genius. While all the broadsheet. highbrow love goes to Mad Men creator Matthew Wiener (fnarr) and Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan, Ms Rhimes has spent the last decade carving a more populist, but no less brilliant furrow, so much so that she has been gifted essentially the whole of Thursday night on a large American network.

I was late to the Shonda train, getting round to watching Scandal around the time the third season started. The first season interested me enough I stuck with it, but the second season sold me by grabbing me by the face and screaming twists and turns at it at such velocity that 16 hours of telly felt like half an hour. It is television with no patience. It throws away a season’s worth of story lines in two episodes, but you rarely feel lost or short changed.

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If you haven’t seen Scandal, it is the story of a morally ambiguous political fixer, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, shouting and pouting her way in a manner which sails between melodrama and high camp, but without ever selling short the emotional punch), and her team of ‘gladiators’ in Washington DC. Which sounds terribly dull and worthy. I should add that she’s sleeping with the president, who she fixed an election for, who may be a puppet of a black ops group her Dad runs, whose ex wife is an international terrorist. And that’s just scratching the surface. Further mention should go to Mellie, the president’s wife, a character who can flit between being the most vile villain to the most sympathetic wronged woman in the space of a single scene.

It was the first prime time drama in the US to feature a black female lead, and in any other hands, I believe that it would have sunk into heavy handed tokenism, but Rhimes has crafted such a sympathetic, morally ambiguous ensemble, that by the time you’re five episodes in, this fact will be mere trivia, despite its being an impressive landmark, which our own whitewashed BBC could learn from.

Finally, it also has two amusing extraneous bits of fluff. Firstly, every episode seems to have a ’70s Soul Exposition Scene’ where the details of the week’s main plot are discussed by Olivia Pope’s team to the tune of Sly and the Family Stone or Rose Royce over flash cuts of their office pinboard, which I cannot help but look forward to every episode. Secondly, the outfits are a thing to behold, and have recently been released as their own fashion line.

After quickly running out of episodes of Scandal, I spent a good while deliberating over whether to watch Grey’s Anatomy. Aren’t medical procedural all the same? Isn’t it just Scrubs without jokes? Isn’t it responsible for Snow Patrol? Is it not (forgive my sexist preconceptions) a women’s series.

If you feel the need to banish these preconceptions, the AV Club has a great article here as to why it thoroughly deserves it’s 11 year run, with no signs of stopping.

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For me, it’s got some signature things I got the impression of fromScandal. A huge cast of diverse actors. You’re set up to hate some from the off, such as alpha male jock Alex Karev and the cold and competitive Christina Yang, but your initial preconceptions get switched, to the point where they are probably the two cast members you can’t live without in the later years. Every time a new character is introduced they quickly become essential- which is important when about 10% of the original cast are left now! The only other showrunner I can think of with this talent is the mighty Joss Whedon, and that is the highest praise I have in my vocabulary.

Like Whedon, Rhimes also likes the odd concept episode. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes terrible, but at 11 series, it keeps the series fresh. And even at its worst, the musical episode, it has a wonderfully creepy, fourth wall breaking intro.

Both shows are also intensely melodramatic. Without meaning to damn either of them with praise, they are incredibly high production value soap operas. The cliffhangers are infinitely more intense- the series cliffhanger where interns and major characters Izzy, and a badly mutilated George are on the operating table, close to death is especially cruel. I am so glad we’ve been boxsetting it. A year’s wait would be awful! And the emotional beats are so much more intense. It helps that Sandra Oh must be one of the best criers I have ever seen.

So… In long form, this is why I feel these shows are essential. Don’t go in expecting highbrow, these are like Con Air and The Rock as films, you’re never going to be thinking of the themes and meanings afterwards. Indeed, Shonda Rhimes is masterful at the type of metaphor that is as subtle as a nuclear weapon killing a fly. In one episode, a surgeon is amazed when for the first time, they hold someone’s heart in their hands, and by the episode, has broken their partners heart. But go in expecting to be entertained. You will be.

How To Get Away With Murder

The above article was originally meant to be a one paragraph introduction to my initial feelings on the new Shonda Rhimes produced series. The original, even less well written piece follows.

If you were planning a murder, getting a series made by one of America’s best loved producers called How to Get Away With Murder is an absolutely genius machiavellian ploy to cover up for your dubious search history. I’m not saying that that’s what they’re doing, but if their next series is called How to Get Blood Stains Out of a Polycotton Shirt, don’t go anywhere secluded with them.

This is not a Shonda Rhimes series. This is a Peter Nowalk series. To give Shonda Rhimes all the credit, as many articles have done, would do the creator of this series a disservice. This being said, a lot of ‘Shonda-isms’ have made their way into this series- Nowalk has written a lot of classic episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal.

It is intensely emotive, has a huge roster of characters, many of whom fall into categories underrepresented on television, and manages to make them much more than the ‘token’ character, it has twists that come rapidly, and the love of metaphor that in any other hands would be as heavy handed as those that wielded the Statue of Justice that appears to be the weapon in the titular murder.

However, the pilot is marked apart by the currently fashionable in medias res* opening, some fun, lurching fast forward/rewind editing, and an ambitious time-hopping structure, which in my day would have been lazily shorthanded as Tarantinoesque, jumping between the murder this series appears to be based around, and the first days at university of the core cast, and how they come under the wing of Annalise Keating (a fantastic Viola Davis), a powerful defense lawyer who teaches their class.
Viola Davis sells the show fantastically, with a scene in the middle of the episode, where she appears to break down in front of a student after having been caught in flagrante delicto** with a man who isn’t her husband (also, credit to the manner in which she is caught… powerful woman and all that). The whole scene takes on different meaning as the episode continues, and you see quite how ruthless she’s willing to be. The fact the scene can carry all the different meanings it needs to is testament to the skill of acting and direction this episode has.

It’s not without its flaws. So many characters are introduced that you haven’t really got much of a handle on any but the aforementioned lead, and the introduction of a third murder to the episode confused matters a little too much, but if the show can get some more coherence in its coming episodes, I think it could be the best show of Shonda Night.

Final stray observation- I think this might be a done in one series. The concept is so tight, I can’t see how they’d carry it on?

* Y’know, where it opens somewhere near the end, then shows you how they got there.

** Doin’ the nasty. Yes, it’s a show about law, and I’m going to show off my Latin skillz.

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