Shonda Rhimes: "Calling a show a 'guilty pleasure' — it’s like saying it's a piece of crap"

The creator of "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal" explores the ethos of immorality -- and the insult she really hates

Published February 10, 2013 9:30PM (EST)

Shonda Rhimes      (Reuters/Fred Prouser)
Shonda Rhimes (Reuters/Fred Prouser)

Shonda Rhimes, the creator of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and the recently ended "Private Practice," is one of the most prolific and powerful creative forces working in network television. (Only Chuck Lorre, who has three sitcoms on CBS, has as many series on the air.) In its ninth season, "Grey's" remains one of the most highly rated dramas on television. In its second, "Scandal" has hit its bonkers creative stride. This season the series, about political fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) having an affair with the president, has staged an assassination attempt and exposed the vote-rigging plot that got the president elected in the first place. It is simultaneously ultra-cynical and overly romantic, and week in and week out, the ballsiest show on television (and by far the most fun to talk about). Rhimes spoke with me about why everyone keeps insisting Olivia Pope is a good guy, how much she hates it when people call "Scandal" a guilty pleasure, and her bafflement by the lack of racial diversity on TV in 2013.

So you recently said no one on "Scandal" was "100 percent good," which seems like an extreme understatement. How rotten do you think they are?

I think that people are really determined that these people be good. People seem very shocked that these people are not good or that they would do something bad. To me that’s very interesting because in the very first episode of the show, Olivia is purchasing a baby and she’s having an affair with the president. I’m not sure why people felt like she was the queen of all goodness. I feel like it’s really a) awesome, frankly revolutionary to have a black female character on television who is the lead of the show who is not a saint. Because, frankly, that’s what happens, they always make them a saint, and it’s really boring and nobody cares. But b) there’s something about these characters that none of them can be all good. The whole point of the show is that everybody has dirty little secrets. Everybody. They all have these dirty little secrets, some of them are terrible little secrets. Everybody has things that they’ve covered up, everybody has things that they’re ashamed of. Everybody has committed their own personal crimes. And we’re still unfolding, and unpacking, and figuring out what everyone’s little crimes are. So there’s nobody good. So the rooting for is subjective.

Have you been surprised by just what you said, that people are filling in the blanks as if these characters are good?

Yes! I love how passionate people are about this show; it’s been really gratifying to see how passionate fans are about the show. But it’s been very interesting to me. The latest thing now is that people are saying, “Oh, Mellie’s baby can’t be Fitz’s. Clearly, that’s not Fitz’s baby.” And for them that’s filling in the blank because Fitz can’t possibly have a baby with his wife, because he loves Liv. It’s the strangest moral juggling ever to make Fitz feel good to them. But to me, I’m like, “Of course he’s had sex with his wife to have a baby. Because she’s his wife.” I’ve been very surprised by it. And also I understand it because the construct of most television shows is: people are good. And there’s a hero and there are bad guys. I mean that’s storytelling 101 on network television, for sure. And there’s just no hero here. You’re rooting for Liv, but she’s not a hero.

Do you watch “Breaking Bad”?

I do watch “Breaking Bad.”

So on “Breaking Bad,” it took a long time, but it has convinced us — most of us, I think — that Walter White is a shithead. People didn’t want to believe that for way longer than made sense, but it happened eventually, and he had to do so many horrible things to get us there. It seems like Liv would have to do things that are much more terrible than the stuff she’s done to get people to think she is a bad person. You would almost have to make that the point of the show, as it is on "Breaking Bad."

Yeah, and I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in forcing down the audiences’ throats that Liv is a shithead [laughs]. For instance, part of the thing about Liv being in love with this married man — that we all seem to accept and find very romantic that they love each other — is that you’re going to fall in love with this relationship because you’re watching it from Olivia’s point of view. It’s wrong, and it’s flawed, and she’s got a really messed up view of what love is, but we’re watching her fall in love from her point of view. So we’re in it. We’re with her on that, as opposed to “Breaking Bad,” where I feel a lot of the times, you’re not always with him, you’re standing outside, gulping, watching him, going, “I can’t believe he’s doing that.” Most of the time, you’re right with Liv. When Liv makes the decision to fix the election, you’re kind of holding her hand. A lot of people said to me [whispers], “I would have done it too.” Which in normal circumstances you would not think that. We’re just placing you in her world, but she’s not a hero.

Right. But that, telling the story only from her point of view, that is why people think she’s the hero …


So you are encouraging us to think that a little.

I guess we are encouraging it. What’s interesting is the big twist of the recent episode, where she agreed to fix the election, was one you knew all along. You knew from the moment she walked into the room and sat down with the Illuminati that she was part of fixing the election. And yet, the big twist of the episode was that she fixed the election. The entire time you’re watching the show you’re like, “She couldn’t possibly have done that. She couldn’t possibly have done that. Oh, but, there’s gotta be a way that she didn’t really do it.” When we got to it in the table read and Olivia Pope agreed to fix the election, the entire cast gasped. I was like, “Why are you all gasping? You knew that she did this!” And everyone was like, “We didn’t think she really did it.” I don’t know what it is.

You are communicating about her using, like, the TV vernacular for her being a hero, but she's not, and that’s part of what is confusing to people.

We’re forcing the audience to identify with her, and then asking them to identify with somebody who’s doing something that’s wrong.

Did you just call the group who schemed to rig the election “the Illuminati” before?

Yeah. That’s what we call them, the writers.

That’s perfect. How much do you like these characters?

I adore them. Honestly. You can’t tell stories and really walk in someone’s shoes and not have a love for them, even if they’re doing horrible things. I feel great sympathy for Cyrus, who I know is a murderer. I know he’s a murderer. I feel great sympathy for him. He’s one of my favorite characters because as far as he’s concerned, he’s the biggest patriot out there, he’s just doing what is best for the country. He fixed that election because of what’s good for the country, he cares about America. Huck really, really does love to kill people. And you adore him. He’s so sweet and so kind, and killing people is his favorite things to do. I love these characters. Somehow you have to stand in their shoes and find their humanity in order to make them feel lovable and real.

Why are you so interested in telling stories from the mistress’s point of view? All of your shows have it. What is that about?

I don’t know. I will be honest and say I don’t know and I do not want to explore it very much. People keep asking me this question. I don’t have the answer. I’m not anybody’s mistress, I will say that. I’m nobody’s mistress. I don’t know, there’s something about it that’s very intriguing to me. I think that shadowy life, that completely secret life, the duality of that existence is interesting.

Did you know that you were interested in it? Or were you just, like, “Oh weird! I’ve just written a bunch of things where the central character is a mistress.”

Yeah, I mean I think it’s that second thing. When I had written the pilot for “Scandal” I thought, “Oh wait! Yeah, I’ve done this before.” I thought about it. But it just works in the story and it makes sense for me. You write the thing that makes you feel a hum in your brain, and this gives me the hum in my brain and so that’s why I write it.

You’ve said that you hate when the show is called a guilty pleasure.

It’s so annoying. It’s like saying the show is a piece of crap but I can’t stop watching it. To me, that’s what a guilty pleasure is. “The Real Housewives” is a guilty pleasure. To me, it’s an insulting thing to say. I would never say that about someone’s show. I think it’s a very insulting thing to say about someone’s show. Calling a show a “guilty pleasure” is like saying "I’m embarrassed to say I watch it but I can’t stop." That’s not a compliment. That is not a compliment! Then don’t watch it, don’t watch it, please.

Why did you make Fitz a Republican?

There were several reasons why I didn’t make him a Democrat. One, we have a Democratic president in office right now and I wanted — Kerry [Washington] works on Obama’s council — and I wanted absolutely no comparisons to Obama. Like, none. In any way, shape or form. Two, I didn’t want him to be a Democrat because of the Monica Lewinsky-Clinton thing, and we were telling the Amanda Tanner story in Season 1, I just didn’t want that to be a thing. Three, the Karl Roves and Dick Cheneys, when you read the history of things that happened — not that anything like what happens on the show ever possibly happened — but things got interesting for me creatively when I started to make up scenarios. It felt more interesting to me if they were Republican.

Do you feel like he shouldn’t be president anymore?

Do I, Shonda, a person who is a citizen of this country, feel like he shouldn’t be president anymore? Absolutely, he wasn’t the president to begin with, as far as I’m concerned. Do I, Shonda, creator of the show, feel like he should not be the president of this country anymore? He should totally be the president of the country. From a voter perspective, absolutely not. As the creator of the show, absolutely he has to be the president of the country for a while longer.

Do you ever think he’s way too consumed by his personal life.

I like to believe that 90 percent of the time of his life that we’re not watching him he’s solving the deficit and doing real presidential stuff. We spend a lot of time with him in his very few moments of down time. I feel like he’s a man who is trapped. As opposed to looking at him as an actual president I often look at him as a prince who was forced onto the throne by a group of people who decided that this was going to happen. Now he’s a king who doesn’t want to be a king, basically. And while he’s a very good king, he hates it. And he can’t find a way out. He’s just looking for a way off the throne. And there’s no way off. And that makes him kind of a baby, yes, because he could walk away at any time. But, really, who would walk away? Who would really just walk away? There’s something very bold about the fact that he just said I’m going to divorce my wife. And what comes next is also just an indication of the fact that he’s tired of the bullshit and maybe he’s going to take his life back a little bit, which I like for him.

How much pride do you take in the fact that your casts are much more racially diverse than most other shows?

I don’t take pride in it at all. I think it’s sad, and weird, and strange that it’s still a thing, nine years after we did “Grey’s,” that it’s still a thing. It’s creepy to me that it’s still an issue, that there aren’t enough people of color on television. Why is that still happening? It’s 2013. Somebody else needs to get their act together. And oh, by the way it works. Ratings-wise, it works. People like to see it. I don’t understand why people don’t understand that the world of TV should look like the world outside of TV. Like, why is there an assumption of whiteness on television? It’s very weird to me. I think there are some people who work really hard at it. I think J.J. Abrams really goes out of his way to try to make television look diverse. I think it’s happening. And I think that some people just assume whiteness, because that’s what they see. It’s weird.

Do you feel like that’s because it is mostly white guys making TV?

I don’t think it’s about that. I really don’t. J.J. Abrams is a white guy, he does it. Norman Lear, years and years and years and years ago, did it. I think it’s ridiculous, that the networks don’t demand it more. I think it’s crazy that the person who everybody asks this question of is me. Everyone always says to me, “Why aren’t there more people of color on television?” I’m like, “Why don’t you ask a bunch of people who aren’t putting people of color on television why there aren’t more people of color on television.”

You’re right. But you know why we’re asking, it’s not because you’re not doing it.

But, you know what I mean? Like, but I can’t tell you why. I don’t know why the white guys aren’t putting people of color on television, maybe we should ask them. And if you ask them all the time, after a while they might start thinking about putting people of color on television. Things are happening. I think “Deception” is a good moment in television. I feel like there’s a person of color as the lead of that show and that wasn’t, like, a thing. There was no conversation about the fact that I was going to have an African-American lead on “Scandal.” ABC wasn’t like, “We need to discuss this.” They were just like, “Great, that’s fine, wonderful. Move on.” But ABC has always been that way, so I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on with other networks. I’ve never worked anyplace else.

When “Scandal” started it seemed like it had a procedural bent, but has since become much more serial.

I don’t think that that’s true.

[Laughs] OK.

What we set out to do is that the first episodes sort of laid out a basic thing, which is you’re watching a show and you think it's about one thing and then you’re like, “Oh my God! No, she’s having an affair with the president!” And we had our A-story, which is the case of the week, and then slowly, our serialized portion got a little bit bigger, so in the first season the Amanda Tanner story gets bigger as you go along. And slowly the Amanda Tanner story took over Season 1 and we were no longer doing a case a week and we were just doing the Amanda Tanner story. That became our case of the week. Which is exactly what we did in Season 2.

The scope of this season— the assassination, the stealing the election— is so huge, was that always the plan?

Well, when we started the show I was thinking let’s do seven episodes and just do seven episodes. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than we have seven episodes and let’s make it work. It wasn’t until we got picked up for Season 2 and then they said we’re going to do 13 and then they said we’re going to do 22 that I thought, well, “Now we have to do a story that’s big enough to fit.” Because when we were doing seven episodes I was like, “We’re doing like a little British miniseries! We only need something small enough to fit seven episodes.” And we were telling that story at a very fast pace. But if we had told that seven-episodes story over 22 episodes, it would have been very slow and very boring. So we had to do a story that felt big enough to fit the number of episodes we had so that the pace would feel the same and you wouldn’t get bored watching it. That was really my goal and my plan.

Does the show feel outrageous to you sometimes? Watching it, it feels outrageous, like there’s nothing you won't do.

I think the interesting thing for me is that — and Betsy Beers and I have talked about this every once in a while with each other — I am making a television show the way you make a television when you have absolutely nothing to lose. Not because I’m so special and so fancy or whatever, it’s because I have another job. I have another job, so I knew in the beginning that if they didn’t like “Scandal” and they axed it I’d still have another job to go to. And I also felt I had the capital that comes from having done “Grey’s” to say, “Screw it, I’m going to make the show I want to make and this is the show I want to make.” I want to watch this show, so I’m going to make the show I want to make and you guys can say whatever you want, but I’m just going to make it anyway, come hell or high water. So I got to do that. And yeah it feels a little crazy, but also it’s just the show I want to watch.

Now that “Scandal” seems to be working, does that alleviate some pressure on the possibility of “Grey’s” ending?

I’ve never felt any of that pressure. “Grey’s” is a very interesting animal. I learned how to write television by writing “Grey’s Anatomy.” I was not a struggling television writer who thought to herself, “If only I could get a television show. If only this show could be on the air for a long time.” I wrote a pilot, and the next thing I knew, I had a television show. I thought maybe we’ll go one season, maybe we’ll go two seasons, and then suddenly we were very lucky to be this very large, very popular show. I’ve always really tried, especially in the later years, to take the attitude that I was going to try to make the show the best show that I could make it and really stay focused on it creatively, to keep it creatively on the top of its game, but that whatever happens, happens. And I don’t feel like there’s any pressure involved in that at all, like, as long as I have a story to tell we’re going to tell it. If I don’t have any story to tell we’re not going to tell it. And I wasn’t going to feel any pressure like, “Oh my God, this show has to stay on the air.”

I had “Private Practice” end this year and it was really sad because I love all the people and it was a great experience. But having my first show end after six seasons, what was really interesting about that for me is, I’m not a virgin anymore. I know what it’s like. And now that I know what it’s like, I’m like, “OK, you know, it ain’t so bad.” It’s bad, but it’s not so bad. So I don’t feel the pressure of that. We’ve done almost 200 episodes of television. If it ends, hell, I’ve got nothing but pride in what we did.

How is it doing "Scandal" and "Grey's" simultaneously?

It’s nice to have a different creative focus now. It’s like having a 10-year-old and — well, it’s like my life. I have a 10-year-old and I have a baby. For real. And with the shows, I have a 10-year-old and I have a baby. And it’s nice having a 10-year-old and a baby. Because the 10-year-old is 10, and you can have great conversations with it and it’s very intellectual. And the baby, my baby learned how to blow kisses this weekend, and that is like an over-the-moon experience. But that’s the same thing as having a new show and having an old show. You have your old show and you go back to it and it’s happening, and it’s lovely, and it’s complex, and it’s nuanced and it’s different. But the new show, every day is like Christmas, because it’s new.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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