The Shonda Rhimes Revolution: Finishing What ‘The Sopranos’ StartedABC
Last month, Alessandra Stanley, the lead TV critic of the New York Times, referred to Shonda Rhimes as an “angry black woman,” and applied the same label to the protagonists of her dramas Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and (really stretching the point) Grey’s Anatomy, which is mostly about a sad-eyed white woman. Stanley was rightly excoriated — her take, as the Times’s own public editor pointed out, was “astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch,” not to mention seriously dense about the history of women of color on network TV. Rhimes allowed herself a rare moment of public annoyance, probably in part because getting angry about unjustly being labeled angry is the definition of a Catch-22 — and smart, perceptive TV critics lined up to refute Stanley’s analysis point by point.
We’re now four weeks into the new TV season, and here’s what we know:
- How to Get Away With Murder is the biggest new hit among 18- to 49-year-olds on any network.
- Although it is created by a white man, it is, to judge from its first three episodes, a complete manifestation, in editing, pacing, tone, style, and content, of the aesthetic of its black female executive producer.
- It is actually about an angry black woman.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as a former overlord of Thursday-night TV once said.
Before I go further: Yes. I get it. “Angry” is a characteristic; “black” and “woman” are groups of the population. To glue the first category to the second and third is to create a stereotype. Any label like “angry black woman” that’s used as if it defines some kind of general truth is by definition a diminishment and a slur. And yet, to avoid the phrase by noting, for instance, that everybody on Rhimes’s shows gets angry is, I think, to dodge some fascinating realities, chiefly that at the heart of her two biggest current hits are specific women … who are black … and very, very angry. I’m including those ellipses because, in her work, the spaces between “angry” and “black” and “woman” — the way those words are in conversation with one another and with the rest of the world but also the way in which they can’t be — are as essential as the words themselves. The fact that Rhimes puts black women at the center of her dramas makes these shows a welcome step forward in the history of network television. But it’s their fury, its origins, and its means of expression that constitute a twist for which “revolutionary” is not too strong a word.
It wasn’t until ABC1 turned its Thursday lineup into a Rhimes triple feature that it became clear how strongly her authorial voice carries across characters and genres. In Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, she tackles three of four pillars of TV workplace dramas: medicine, politics, and law.2 Grey’s Anatomy’s Miranda Bailey, the doctor played by Chandra Wilson, is not at the center of her show the way Scandal’s Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and Murder’s Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) are, but she could certainly be a cousin to those characters. She’s overachieving (because she has to be), irascible (because of a lifetime of putting up with whatever she has had to put up with in a professional world where nobody on her level looks like her), verbal, hard to get to know, emotionally compartmentalized, damaged, smart enough to know she’s damaged, and also smart enough to know her inability to repair that damage makes her vulnerable.
Grey’s has been on for a decade now; Miranda was the 1.0 iteration of the Shonda Rhimes Heroine. Originally an ultra-stern taskmistress nicknamed “the Nazi” by the younger doctors in her charge, she has, over the years, been dimensionalized in a way that, unlike Rhimes’s later shows, is reasonably typical of network TV. When she launched Grey’s, Rhimes wasn’t yet elbows-deep in the idea of haunted consciences, but wherever she started to go (and perhaps couldn’t entirely go) with Miranda,3 it’s clear that with Olivia and Annalise, she got there. Washington’s and Davis’s characters are a diptych: They are both professional women who are regarded by the world around them as almost preternaturally gifted at their jobs. They are both, more often than not, paid to clean up white people’s messes — and if you don’t think Rhimes and her characters are aware of the grim historical resonance of that phrase and that function, you’re undercrediting them. They both tell themselves the big lie that they can sever their professional value (respectively, spin control and getting clients acquitted) from questions of morality (are they protecting good people or abetting bad ones?). And they’re both part of a corrupt, indecent power structure that, unlike most women of color, they were able to penetrate from the outside. They rose within that structure in part because they could see it coolly and lucidly, as only outsiders can; they succeeded so well that the structure itself now depends on them; and, at the pinnacle of their achievement, they have started to realize that their hands are dirty. As the hands of people paid to clean up messes usually are.
Olivia and Annalise are not “Angry Black Women”™; they’re two very specific angry black women who cope with their rage — and the terror that fuels much of it — in different ways. Olivia drowns hers in Cougar Town–size goblets of red wine and in dreams of the kind of love story in which a white knight eradicates her Bad Daddy4 and then helps wash away the stains on her soul. Annalise, so far, appears to use no-strings sex the way Olivia uses romance — as an anesthetic (a just-on-the-verge-of-being-overused current TV trope that ties her to, among others, Homeland’s Carrie Mathison and The Honorable Woman’s Nessa Stein). A law-school professor and criminal-defense attorney, she is older and in some ways wiser than Olivia, but she’s also coming apart at the seams. In her professional life, she declaims almost defiantly from her lectern that she’s not particularly interested in the truth about her clients, but in her personal life, she seems most afraid in those moments when she doesn’t know what the truth is. And part of that fear, as expressed by the incomparably gifted Davis, seems to stem from her awareness that knowing the truth — if not about her clients, then about her cheating and possibly homicidal husband — will make things even worse.
I’m about to get into some stuff that Shonda Rhimes hates. In a recent, revealing interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she allowed that while she personally finds “race and gender to be terribly important … there’s something about the need for everybody else to spend time talking about it … that pisses me off.” That’s very Rhimes. She’ll give you her work but not her motives; she’ll position her characters along any number of provocative political, racial, and gender axes, but don’t ask her to show you the diagram or even to acknowledge that there is one. She is almost unparalleled at making sure her shows engage with fans via social media, but she has never had a lot of patience with outside analysis or criticism, let alone attempts to turn her into a spokesperson for anything (or to view her characters as spokespeople for her). She’s got three kids at home and probably about 300 more at the office, and she does not have time for anyone’s bullshit. Her prevailing vibe is Just let me do my work. You don’t need answers to your questions; you only need to know that, to quote Olivia, it’s handled.
Should we see (or hear) Rhimes when we look at her characters? I’m sensitive to the glib offense of assuming that, as NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote dryly, “everything women write is really journaling.” But male show creators transmute their best and worst qualities into their protagonists all the time. Josh Lyman, swinging through the West Wing and charming the ladies with banter, always felt like Aaron Sorkin’s self-idealizing surrogate, just as Toby Ziegler was his leave-me-alone-I’ll-do-it-myself dark mirror. The Don Draper who thinks his subordinates can’t ever quite nail it the way he can surely possesses some of Matt Weiner’s DNA. And there’s a lot of David Simon in Jimmy McNulty and every other know-it-all bastard on The Wire who is better and wiser than the morally stunted bosses who get in his way. It’s no insult to suggest that Rhimes’s many years as one of the only women of color in her field, rising to the top by learning to handle dolts who thought they knew better without alienating them, feels like it informs her characters (especially Miranda and Olivia, who must manage both up and down).
But Rhimes is up to something tougher than simply pouring beakers of her own impatience, irritation, or frustration into the empty shells of fictional surrogates. Because Scandal, in particular, does not look like any show that came before it, and Rhimes does not look like most showrunners, it’s too easy to treat her series as special cases that can be examined only after we quarantine them from the official roster of TV’s neo–Golden Age dramas. I’ve written before about how easy it is to condescend to shows that have what too many people see as downmarket trappings — they’re on broadcast networks, after all, and because they have women at their centers, they’re labeled soap operas in a way that, for instance, Game of Thrones and Sons of Anarchy are not. In fact, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, to my eyes, are neo–Golden Age dramas; they’re just, to steal a concept from Marvel, Phase II rather than Phase I. Rhimes is doing something new, but she’s working off of, and in the process reworking, a template that has been around since David Chase got this whole ball rolling.
Starting with The Sopranos, the question that has given force and momentum to TV’s most acclaimed dramas has been this: How many bad acts can a man — Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White — commit before he loses his humanity and/or any shot at redemption? But running right alongside that has been a subnarrative about women. Its origin point is “Second Opinion,” the essential third-season Sopranos episode in which Carmela, infatuated with her own Catholic guilt and frustrated by Tony’s infidelities, visits a psychiatrist. She thinks she’s looking for guidance, but what she really wants is the comfort of exoneration and sympathy. “He betrays me every week with these whores!” she sobs. The shrink is having none of it. Leave him, he tells her. “You’ll never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about, so long as you’re his accomplice.” The therapist tells Carmela he won’t accept her “blood money.” He’s not interested in her excuses or refutations. “Take only the children — what’s left of them — and go,” he says, and concludes with what remains the single most devastating line of the series: “One thing you can never say — that you haven’t been told.”
That Old Testament truthbomb begat a decade of TV drama: Skyler White’s transformation from oblivion to suspicion to devastated knowledge to unsentimental participation; Joan Holloway’s decision to sell herself, and thus purchase a seat in the boardroom with the only currency she feels she has; Alicia Florrick’s now-weekly downward-defining of what “good” means. More than anyone else in television, Rhimes has taken that struggle off the back burner and made it the subject of her work. One thing none of her heroines can say is that they haven’t been told; in fact, they’ve told themselves. Both Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder could be retitled Complicity. They’re shows that explore how much you can know, or tacitly consent to, before you’re part of the disease. In Shondaland, knowledge is sin, and all of her heroines have taken a bite of the apple.
It’s Rhimes’s signature to have her characters deal with that surfeit of awareness by aiming torrents of words at each other. People are right to note that it’s not just women who make those speeches, but straight white men certainly don’t get the lion’s share of them (on Scandal, even the president of the United States needs to be told what to say, and it’s usually either an African American woman or a gay man telling him).
Rhimes’s predecessors from TV’s first Golden Age — guys like Paddy Chayefsky, whose last-honest-man diatribes came alive in an era when Jews were seen as the outsiders most likely to have a bead on hard truths — relished writing men who skated the line separating conviction from madness, and sometimes skated right off it. But her characters don’t have that luxury — for a woman, getting called “crazy” is instantly discrediting, where for a man it can half-admiringly mean “visionary.” The fact that they’re black and female is not irrelevant to the constraints under which they find themselves. They know they can’t go full Peter Finch batshit, so they express anger by making a display out of their ability to keep control, by winding their way through epic spoken arias without ever fully losing it. They live on the verge, but never over it; even when they’re ready to explode, the syntax always tracks.
As long as Olivia’s Olympian sentences and Annalise’s classroom lectures and Socratic knife-thrusts remain parsable, nobody can diminish them as the “hysterical” ventings of, you know, angry black women. Moreover, hyperstylized language is a way of forcing people to listen when you suspect they otherwise won’t; it’s a time-honored tool of the marginalized (for evidence, check out any episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race). Rhimes loves ripping a scene out of conversational mode and going into the urgent overdrive of Haute Monologue, but there’s a reason beyond writerly predilection why Tony and Don never had to do that. When Arthur Miller first saw A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, he was struck by the way that Tennessee Williams used heightened language to “lift the experience” into what he called “emergency speech of an unashamedly open kind … free from the crabbed dramatic hints and pretexts of ‘the natural.’” What Rhimes has come up with is a modern, glossy, camera-ready version of that non-natural language. Her characters need to speak the way they speak because in their world, it’s the only way they can get heard.
It’s interesting to consider Rhimes in the light of TV’s other best-known current word blaster. Next month, The Newsroom returns to the air for its final season. Aaron Sorkin’s series is nothing if not speechy; I haven’t seen the new episodes yet, but I’m fairly certain that at least once, Jeff Daniels is going to fill his third, fourth, and fifth lungs with air and just go until he has said whatever large thing he has to say. Most of Sorkin’s speechifiers are white guys, and most of what they express is some combination of the following: This is not good enough. We can do better. I am disappointed in you. I am disappointed in us. This can never happen again. Let’s fix this. It is an essentially optimistic, captain’s-deck point of view, one that evinces a belief that the world can be made better if the people in charge try harder and start acting on conviction and principle.
Sometimes Rhimes’s women talk that way. But Rhimes rarely writes “we” speeches, the platitudes of leaders rallying the troops. She prefers the ferocious indictment of “you.” You betrayed me. Or, I cannot take this from you anymore. Or, You screwed up and now you’re going to fix it. Or, You are not going to get away with this. Because Rhimes is, in her quirky way, a realist, she keeps the success rate of those speeches modest. Sometimes — rarely — they work completely; sometimes they have a transient positive effect; sometimes they just give her characters a chance to blow off steam. And sometimes her characters are angry because things are so screwed that yelling about them is the only thing you can do. The fact that those often-dazzling tirades are delivered by people desperate to believe that they’re observers of a flawed system rather than instruments of it gives them an especially bitter kick. Of course they’re angry! Angry at the world that made the rules of the game, angry at themselves for mastering it, and terrified of what it’s going to cost them. Wouldn’t you be? As Olivia Pope might put it, Now say you understand.