At one point or another, many of us have been sucked into the Shonda-verse. Maybe you’re an OG who started with Grey’s Anatomy; maybe you became addicted to the “twisty” turns of Scandal. Or maybe you’re being introduced to Shondaland for the first time through the newest hit, Bridgerton.
Whenever you were indoctrinated into the hot-mess fictional universe of Shonda Rhimes, you came to expect every week a heaping helping of primetime soap opera writing. People have been kidnapped, gone missing, survived plane crashes, and worked to cover up everything from adultery to murder. Yet, throughout it all, we can also expect some killer monologues about love, race, feminism, and justice. This thrilling combination of over-the-top writing and sociopolitical commentary has become Shondaland’s brand. It’s important to remember, however, that Shonda herself is not some Superewoman.
As in, she didn’t write all of these shows herself.
With her first two mega-hits, Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, Shonda became well-known as a “showrunner,” a term describing an omniscient person who does some combination of directing, producing, and writing a TV show. Usually, the “showrunner” title is earned if the person also created the show. Because Shonda helped to bring this term into the television lexicon, people created a strong association between Shondaland — the production company that Shonda created — and Shonda herself. I’m here to set you straight: Shonda Rhimes did not and does not write every show produced by Shondaland.
Here’s a quick primer on which shows the TV mogul did and didn’t write.
Grey’s Anatomy (2005–): Shonda Wrote It….until recently
Shonda served as the lead writer for Grey’s up until 2017 when she inked a deal with Netflix. She left ABC after an outrageous incident of disrespect from an executive there, and after a bit of a hiatus, began her Netflix journey with the premiere of Bridgerton at the conclusion of 2020. As an aside, you may be shocked to learn that the lead writer for How to Get Away With Murder also had a writing history with Grey’s. We’ll get to him in a bit.
Private Practice (2007-2013): Shonda Wrote It….it seems?
The first spinoff to Grey’s, Private Practice starred Kate Walsh and ran for six seasons. Shonda’s involvement with the writing of this one is unclear. She is given writing credits for every episode, yet the changes to the lead writing team (not including Shonda) were publicized during the show’s run. I believe we can conclude that Shonda served as a final consultant to the two writing teams responsible for the nitty-gritty work of creating storylines. So she didn’t write it per se, but likely curated the voice and tone of the show throughout its run.
Scandal (2012-2018) Shonda Wrote It….with lots of help
From research, it appears that Scandal was perhaps Shonda’s most involved project to date. The series didn’t have an infinite number of seasons (like Grey’s does currently), and therefore Shonda seemed to have the most intricate visions for the main characters. She did interviews about the direction of Scandal constantly. Even still, she shared the load with her own team of quasi-Gladiators. Here’s a fantastic interview with the show’s writing team done at the end of Scandal’s run.
How to Get Away With Murder (2014-2020): Shonda Didn’t Write It….at all
In her first true departure from writing, Shonda was never involved with the stories of HTGAWM. The lead writer for the show was Peter Nowalk, whose company also co-produced the show alongside Shondaland and ABC Studios. Shonda’s only claim to the show lies in her executive producer credit, but even that title is shared with Betsy Beers. You can read Peter discussing the show’s run in detail here.
Station 19 (2018-) Shonda Didn’t Write It….at any point
The second Grey’s spinoff, Station 19, chronicles the personal and professional lives of firefighters at a nearby fire station to Seattle Grace Hospital. When looking at the writing team, it appears that the lead writer is Paris Barclay, although the hierarchy of the writing team is unclear. For a behind-the-scenes look at the show’s writing process, you can follow the Station 19 Writers’ Room on Twitter.
Bridgerton (2020-): Shonda Didn’t Write It….and she’s in the background
Since we’re still early in Bridgerton’s run, the faces of the writing team have yet to really reveal themselves, but we do know that the showrunner for this series is Chris Van Dusen. We can only assume that he is involved in the writing process, but the extent to which is unknown. But one thing is for certain: ain’t no way Shonda wrote this show. Like HTGAWM, Shonda shares an executive producer credit with longtime collaborator Betsy Beers.
I write this not to throw shade at Shonda, or to make excuses for some of the questionable writing choices made in some of these shows (okay, maybe a little to that last part). As media consumers — dare I say, savants — it is important to give proper credit and acknowledgment to those actually involved in creating the stories of our favorite shows. Conversely, it is also wise to know who exactly you’re casting stones at when you don’t like the direction or writing of specific characters. Shonda Rhimes has received both praise and ire when it wasn’t deserved simply because her production company’s name was tagged onto a series’ end credits.
As showrunners become nearly as big as the shows themselves, audiences must keep in mind that it takes a village to create visual art. No one person can do it alone; even the cream of the crop need help bring their visions to life. Shonda, in this regard only, isn’t as exceptional as we’ve tricked ourselves into believing.