Glen-Larson: A verb meaning to combine and stoke up established TV formats so they become something more exciting without truly being new. (Today’s #PeoplesPilotTip)
How TV queen Shonda Rhimes combined classic formats, amped them up and changed the face of prime-time
by David Berry
Shonda Rhimes is quite possibly the hardest-working person in show business. Since 2007, she has never not had at least two full-length network television series for which she was both executive producer and show runner (i.e. the person responsible for not just the overall scope of a show, but also the one actually writing most of it, too). For a brief period, she had three: Grey’s Anatomy, now in its 12th season, Scandal, in its fifth, and Private Practice, which ended in 2013.
Since then, she has mercifully limited herself to being largely responsible for just two shows, but has made up the gap by expanding her empire as producer. First came Off the Map, so far the only show she’s been connected with that hasn’t yet lasted multiple seasons. Next was How to Get Away With Murder, which just finished its second season, and, like Map, is the creation of a writer she groomed in the Grey’s room.
She is adding yet another next week with The Catch, debuting in Murder’s slot and keeping Thursday night prime-time filled to the brim with Shondaland. Following what’s so far been an almost unimpeachable formula, it will feature the crafty manipulations of a steel-veined but full-hearted woman as she makes her way not just through an infinitely complex world, but interpersonal relationships that are forever one small spark away from explosion. In The Catch’s case, that’s Alice Vaughan (The Killing’s Mireille Enos), a private detective whose life is thrown into disarray when she discovers her fiancee (Peter Krause) is actually a con man out to swindle her, and probably anyone else he can get his hands on.
You don’t reach this level of saturation — it is worth pointing out that, even in an industry famous for egomaniacal workaholics, no one else has managed to produce an entire block of programming named after themselves — without a work ethic that would be the envy of even a genetically spliced bee-beaver hybrid. Though you also don’t get there without having an eye for undercurrents that have been both over and under-exploited in pop culture, and going at them whole hog. And if there is one thing that connects both Shonda Rhimes the creator and the shows she has shepherded into pop cultural milestones, it’s that there is no room for half-measures.
It’s tempting, especially in a culture where identity has taken centre stage, to focus on Rhimes as a kind of paragon of diversity, someone who has got ahead at least in part by giving us viewpoints that have been seriously underserved in television history. And that’s undeniably some of the appeal of her shows, even as it sells her short: as something of a pioneer of perspective, she first had to be an absolute savant when it came to hitting serialized audience pleasure centres.
Whatever else we want to say about Rhimes, we first have to acknowledge just how good Shondaland is at exploiting the gut-level basics of television craft. If there are multiple secrets to success on Rhimes’s level, a major one is taking the familiar forms of television and pushing their most appealing parts to extremes.
You can start with the basic premises: Grey’s is a hospital drama, one of the keystones of television programming, narrowing only slightly in its spin-off, Private Practice. Scandal is less of a purely established genre, though its obsession with political maneuvering certainly makes it right at home in the current mood, and in a lot of ways it’s a kind of reverse cop drama, trying to figure out how to cover up crimes and misdemeanours rather than solve them. How to Get Away With Murder mixes police-type whodunitry with the technical chess games of the legal world. The Catch’s P.I. format introduces us to television’s other classic crime fighter….