No network was scrutinized more in this month’s Upfronts than ABC, which, for the past three seasons, has ranked dead last among the big four networks for viewers under 50. The female-skewing ABC is trying to lift itself out of the slump with 13 new programs, many focused on diversity, and by handing over its Thursday night line-up to one woman: Shonda Rhimes.
Rhimes has become one of the most powerful showrunners in television, an accomplishment worth noting in and of itself, but also because she’s become the most prominent African-American woman in an industry dominated by white men. She is now to ABC what Two and a Half Men exec producer Chuck Lorre is to CBS, what Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane is to Fox, and, though perhaps not as extensively (yet), what SNL king Lorne Michaels is to NBC. Though it would be an exaggeration to say that ABC’s fate rests in her hands, Rhimes was given the keys to ABC’s castle a long time ago. While the network has been suffering as a whole, Rhimes’ two shows, Grey’s Anatomy and political drama Scandal are, by any absolute measure, doing gangbusters.
The 43-year-old Rhimes has a simple formula and it works: She creates the kind of TV she’d want to watch — pleasurable, juicy, sexy, absorbing, suck-you-in television — and has a diverse, popular set of cast members and characters to play out the ever-heightening dramas. Both Grey’s Anatomy, a drama about a bunch of attractive doctors who can’t resist each other, and Scandal, a suspenseful political thriller, employ this approach.
But this fall, Rhimes will seemingly push that formula to its limits with How to Get Away With Murder, a drama whose improbability and melodrama is built into its very premise: Murder, a legal thriller penned by Grey’s Anatomy‘s Peter Nowalk, stars two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis as a shrewd criminal-law professor who becomes involved in a murder plot while coaching five ambitious students. Because it’s a Shondaland production, however, you can bet it’ll be exciting without going all the way to Crazy Town. In a recent New York Times Magazine profile, Rhimes told writer Willa Paskin about moderating her power, saying, “I’m in a position of power where I run this world and handle this situation… If I’m going to make a crazy decision, then I better be damn sure. Because it’s not like anybody’s going to tell me, ‘You can’t do that.'”
The other part of Rhimes’ winning formula, diversity, is a casting and character decision that comes instinctively to her, and one that ABC is starting to take note of (hopefully the other networks will, too). Davis will be the second black female lead in one of Rhimes’ shows. And, though her characters rarely discuss race, they’re allowed to be more complex, fuller beings than we usually see for people of color on television. “When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah,'” Rhimes told the Times Magazine. Rhimes’ characters show blackness, or gayness, or what in most shows would be an “otherness,” as ordinary. This is just the way of American life.
While Rhimes doesn’t attempt to cater specifically to women, or to people of color, it’s important to note that her approach and her shows open doors for both. Davis, one of the few black movie actresses to transition to an increasingly attractive full-time television role, is already known for movies like The Help, Doubt and Traffic, among others, but Murder is likely to catapult her to the forefront of American consciousness as never before. This is what Scandal did for star Kerry Washington by the meme– and GIF-ability of the gripping show: Parks and Recreation star Retta famously tweets her reactions to Scandal, Jimmy Kimmel Live devoted an episode of its show to the season 3 finale, and Washington hosted SNL in a historic season for the NBC sketch show.
Not only does Rhimes’ approach work, but by staying true to her beliefs, the one-woman powerhouse is proving that the old, unspoken maxims of television — that people pay more attention to white men on TV, or that women aren’t serious consumers and creators of television — are flat-out wrong, if not extremely misguided. This so-called revelation might not save ABC this coming season, but it will end up saving television.