How Shonda Rhimes Combined With The Rise of Peak TV to Kill The Guilty Pleasure
It’s Fine To Love Grey’s Anatomy…As Long As You Understand Why
I have made little secret in my years as a columnist how much I truly loathe Shonda Rhimes and all the series that she and her ilk have created over the past two decades. However, it was not until fairly recently that I came into a deeper understanding as to not only why I bare her such disgust but also the real reason why so many other people worship her and her shows. It may surprise you that this is not so much a problem of quality as it is labeling, both by Rhimes and her writers as well as too many critics and fans.
To explain the reasoning one has to go back to the beginning of Rhimes’ success — and then just a few months before that to the fall of 2004. For those of you whose memories of what television was like back then may be vague, it’s worth a brief refresher, one that as both a historian and an observer of that period am more than qualified to write about.
Back then what was considered the Golden Age of TV was limited in scope compared to how it would be in a few years. HBO was pretty much the only game in town when it came to revolutionary cable shows. FX had exploded on to the scene with The Shield two years earlier but had yet to make much of an impact beyond that; Showtime was dipping its toes in the water but still not much of a success and AMC wasn’t really doing anything at all. Network television was pretty much fighting with HBO for television perfection and at that time, they showed no signs of surrendering though each had taken different approaches.
NBC was unfortunately too invested in the long-running hits such as ER, Law & Order, and the remnants of Must-See TV that would all basically be gone before the decade was over, leaving the cupboards bare when it came to hits (but not inspiration). CBS was already becoming the home for procedurals and little else; by this fall, the third franchise in the CSI series would debut. Fox was more ambitious during this period, and American Idol would eventually help boost struggling shows like 24 and House to huge success. ABC was looking in the worst shape going into 2004; indeed the head of broadcasting Lloyd Braun was on the verge of being fired. Before he was, however, he greenlit a series of shows that would propel ABC into the forefront of being both a critical and ratings success for the rest of the decade. (Indeed, he actually came up with the concept for Lost, whose creation and success are among the most improbable in the history of television.)
But the most important series that ended up debuting that fall appeared on Sundays. I will go on record as saying that I actually wrote a very long editorial column to the producers of ABC expressing my outrage at their decision to postpone one of my favorite shows of the time Alias until the following January. I berated their history at cancelling promising series before (the cancellations of Sports Night and Once and Again were still raw in my memories) and argued that I had no faith at all in their capabilities to produce a successful series (not outside logic at the time). What series, I wrote, could possibly be as worthy of the viewers time more than Alias?
That September, Desperate Housewives debuted in Alias’ old time-slot and became one of the biggest hits in television history. I will confess to being a huge fan from day one. At the time, I was just as likely to watch reruns of soap operas than anything ‘classy’ and the cast of Teri Hatcher, Marcia Cross, Felicity Huffman and Nicolette Sheridan was more than enough to lure me in.
To be clear, then and now, no one could mistake Desperate Housewives for being at the same level of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or any of the HBO series that were running against it. I certainly didn’t. I also didn’t care. For the next six and half seasons (I only stopped watching because The Good Wife starting running against it in the final season), I spent most of my Sundays on Wisteria Lane trying to figure out the increasingly ridiculous and bizarre mysteries that involved all the title characters. Increasingly Marc Cherry’s vision of a satire of a soap opera became as outrageous as any soap and just as ridiculous. That never bothered me, any more than its slow decline in quality. What was clear to be then — and what seems to have been lost now — is that as much as Peak TV is smart and gloomy, sometimes when it comes to television, you need to turn your brain off for a while and just watch a show because its fun. Maybe its just campy, maybe its dumb fun, but its still fun. Desperate Housewives was a water-cooler show in a way that few series have ever been since. We didn’t talk about it because we were trying to solve the puzzles we did every week on Lost or we were reeling over the stunning deaths on 24 or because we were trying to figure out the meaning of what might be happening on Mad Men each episode. We were watching the show mainly to comment on the absurdities that so many of the characters were getting into every week.
And there were a lot of us — the first season averaged between 20 and 25 million viewers week. Because success can breed success, this helped boost the series that came immediately after Desperate Housewives on Sunday nights, David E. Kelley’s follow-up to The Practice, Boston Legal. To be clear, this series would probably have been a success on its own, though not nearly as massive. James Spader and William Shatner had already won Emmys for playing these characters on The Practice the previous season (and would do so again the coming one) and David E. Kelley’s series had a greater track record to this point. And it’s mainly because Boston Legal’s season ended in March of 2005 that started the rise of Shondaland.
For those who only remember a time when Grey’s Anatomy was around, it’s hard to believe that it originally debuted in March of 2005 as what amounted to a mid-season replacement. Then, as now, midseason series were almost always shows that networks had no faith in to debut at the start of the fall, and indeed the first season of Grey’s only aired nine episodes. It did not run after Desperate Housewives because ABC thought it was a worthy companion to the show; basically it was there to fill a gap in the schedule until the end of the season. The fact that it might do very well in the ratings was considered a possibility, but it was not one that necessarily guaranteed success going forward: there have been countless shows that start out as successes in the fall or mid-season and collapse when they have to stand on their own.
And unlike the raves that came for Desperate Housewives and Lost, the initial reactions to Grey’s Anatomy was underwhelming, if not downright hostile. Ellen Pompeo’s title character was considered an insipid whiner, utterly unsuited to be the lead of a series. (This opinion lasted well into the show next couple of years.) Many critics, who had been expecting a medical drama, were disappointed at the fact that they were basically seeing a show with a lot of young people getting naked and having sex. And the opening title sequence put off every critic who watched it (it was discarded completely by the middle of Season 2). Some critics did acknowledge the talent of Sandra Oh, Patrick Dempsey and Isaiah Washington, but mainly in the sense of: “What are such good actors like these doing in a show like this?”
Grey’s Anatomy was a success and indeed get renewed for a second season. It received three Emmy nominations that year, including the first of what would be five consecutive Supporting Actress nominations for Sandra Oh. It made enough of an impression that in the 2005–2006 season, it remained on Sunday from the beginning to end. (It did not move to its Thursday night home until the beginning of the 2006–2007.) The fan base did continue to expand, critical reception did overall improve, and ABC eventually did get enough faith in the show to have it follow the 2006 Super Bowl. That, along with the fact that it aired its first real ‘event’ episode’ (‘The End of the World, in which Meredith finds herself dealing with a live round of explosive ammunition in a patient’s chest) almost certainly cemented it as a hit series. (In a way, I believe the two parter is the high point of Grey’s Anatomy creatively and the Emmys agreed, both Kyle Chandler and Christina Ricci received nominations for their appearances.)
But while audiences have loved the show ever since, I think the reason that so many do has more to do with where it was originally scheduled than anything else. Not so much because it followed Desperate Housewives, but because it was, in a very real sense, much the same kind of series. It’s just that fans — and indeed Shonda Rhimes herself — deny it, not only about Grey’s Anatomy¸ but every other series that Shondaland has produced in all the years following.
Because I watched a lot of medical shows before, during and after this period. I spent many years thinking Chicago Hope was superior to ER, though now I realize the latter was as good as people said it was. I discovered House three months before the world did. I was one of the few people who consider Scrubs as close as this millennium will ever get to MASH in terms of both humor and desperation. And around the same time, a satellite channel began to air reruns of St. Elsewhere, a medical drama all others owe a debt too.
And under no circumstances could you accept any of the behavior that any of the doctors or residents do at any time on Grey’s Anatomy as being acceptable on any other medical drama to that point in history and well beyond it. The storyline involving Denny Duquette, in which Izzie Stevens slowly but surely falls in love with him, is something that I’ve never seen any other medical drama even dare to try because it would never be allowed to progress that far. The fact that every other resident knows about it and does nothing was one thing; the fact that the attendings knew about and did nothing is another. And the fact that it eventually ended with Stevens cutting the L-Vat wire on Denny so he could receive a heart that was going to go to another patient goes beyond the standards that any medical advisor would consider permissible. And there were never any consequences, not just for Stevens but for anybody. I believe the only punishment the residents faced was they had to host a prom for the chief of staff’s sick niece, during which Denny died. Stevens confessed her sin and resigned — and early in Season 3 was back in Seattle Grace with no consequences to her career. Two seasons later, the patient who had lost that heart ended up in Seattle Grace, and when the attending learned the truth, she protested to the staff — and there were no consequences then. (The character left the show in the next episode and the whole storyline was forgotten. I guess the guy died. Oh well.)
And during the five seasons I ended up watching the series, there were countless storylines like this that I haven’t the heart to go into. None of them would be accepted as believable on ER or Scrubs or, hell, Chicago Med. Because none of them meet the standard of acceptable hospital behavior. What they do meet the standard of is a soap opera.
And if you consider not only Grey’s Anatomy but every other success Shondaland has had, their mass acceptance makes perfect sense. Scandal is not a political drama where we watch the backrooms of DC; it’s a show where we’re given insight into the bedrooms of the powerful. How to Get Away with Murder is not a legal drama about a brilliant criminal attorney and the students who she takes under her wing; it’s a potboiler about the bedroom habits of her students and how they screw each other over (and each other generally) at the cost of everyone else. Bridgerton is not a regency romance about relationships between the upper-class; it’s showing that in the 19th century people were as dirty as they are today. The only Shondaland series that wasn’t a soap opera (in fact, it had practically no sex at all) was the legal drama For The People. This series was a brilliant drama that dealt with relevant issues and blind spots in the justice system on both sides, had a superb cast and was exceptionally well-written. It was cancelled after two seasons and How to Get Away With Murder was renewed for its sixth. The big difference was one legal drama had a lot more sex and ‘revelations.’
Viewed in this lens, all the ridiculous things that have happened on Grey’s Anatomy over the years — having sex with ghosts, ridiculous numbers of traumas happening to the doctors, characters marrying each other, divorcing, then getting back together, completely arbitrary deaths to regulars — make perfect sense. Back when Melrose Place was on the air, when a character wanted to leave, they generally died in ridiculous fashion. Kristin Davis drunkenly slipped and drowned in the apartment complex swimming pool while people were a few feet away. Laura Leighton’s character was killed in a hit and run by a criminal father of another resident of the complex. Doug Savant’s character actually left alive, but when they need certain secrets revealed the writers killed him off for the sole purpose of everybody getting his diary and learning them. In that context, the decision to have Lexie Grey’s character not merely die in a plane crash but be eaten by wolves is perfectly logical.
And none of this would bother me so much were it not that critics and Rhimes herself fundamentally deny that her shows are soap operas. They’re shows about female friendship, they’re shows about powerful black women taking down the system, they’re shows about the downtrodden showing how powerful they are — they are anything but show where pretty people screw each other senseless, ridiculous things happen every episode, and people die in bizarre fashion. They’re soap operas in other words.
And I don’t entirely blame Rhimes or even some critics or fans for arguing otherwise. One of the misfortunes of Peak TV is that so many critics and fans seem they have to justify the reason that they are watching shows like Scandal or Bridgerton than say, Yellowjackets or This is Us. Because there’s too much TV on for anyone to handle, we feel we have to argue why we’re watching dumb comedies or ridiculous soap operas rather than all of the stuff are friends are telling us too. So we try to find reasons that are bigger than they are to watch a show like Nashville or Empire rather than the fact that is just ridiculous fun. We can’t have guilty pleasures in the era of Peak TV, at least not for that reason.
The thing is, we shouldn’t have to. A guilty pleasure is still a pleasure. Even as a TV critic I know there’s a lot of great TV out there that is smart and wonderful watch, but sometimes you just need to turn your brain off and have fun.
In the fall of 2020 a dark time for the world, I found myself watching Filthy Rich, a ridiculous soap opera featuring Kim Cattrall as the matriarch of a televangelist who is the head of a commercial empire. It was one of the most brainless and ridiculous I ever watched, with silly performances and characters. It had no redeeming values at all. I watched every episode and was sad when it ended up being cancelled.
Granted during that same period, there was almost no television at all for anybody to watch, but honestly I probably would have watched it under other circumstances. I wouldn’t pretend to put it in the same terms as The Undoing or the fourth season of Fargo both of which I watched just as loyally at the same time, but I was just as sad when Filthy Rich was done when the other, far more brilliant series were.
What separates Grey’s Anatomy from Filthy Rich is, frankly, pretention. Not merely from that of Rhimes and her fans but the built-in feelings that so many of us seem to have when we get when he defend a show we love. This is something that critics can be as guilty as fans are at times. We want to see values or depth to series we loved when really the only reason we have to love them as because we enjoy them. Perhaps your definition of why you like a series is different than mine. That’s to be expected. Perhaps the reason I consider so many shows ‘overrated’ is because the pretentions that fans of these series seem to be oblivious are crystal clear to me. That’s the reason I dislike them, but it’s not a reason you have too. (Award shows are another matter, but I’ll save that for a different column and a different show.)
I have always thought the world would benefit more from honesty about all things, and I think that applies to TV as anything. So to critics and fans who say they like a show for a certain reason, just tell us why you really like it. Don’t say you love Succession because it’s a brilliantly crafted series about psychodrama and family dynamics; say you love it because it’s a series where miserable rich people treat each other horribly and shout ridiculously profane insults at each other. Don’t say you love Euphoria because it’s a deep portrayal of teenage dissatisfaction drug addiction; say you love because it’s a ridiculous over-the-top campy show with a lot of back-fighting and nudity. Don’t say you love Grey’s Anatomy because its one of the most towering medical dramas in the history of television; say you love it because it’s over the top soap opera and you can’t wait to see which character will sleep with who next. You don’t have to lie to us why you enjoy a series and you certainly don’t have to lie to yourself either. Television is essentially a solitary affair, and what you choose to watch in the privacy of your home — and why you watch it — shouldn’t matter to anybody but you.