ShondaLand: A Distinctive Ride

Seth MacFarlane, Aaron Spelling, Paul Henning, and Dick Wolf are all names that could be brought up when considering the term auteur. The title of auteur is “a French term for the artist whose vision and personality is “written” into a text” (Vande Berg, 2004, p. 231). Essentially, the man or woman who is accredited with the works has infused his or her own self into the text and those texts have taken on a new type of genre, a genre categorized by it’s auteur. As an example, Seth MacFarlane is known for his crude animated comedies, with the exception of the non-animated movie Ted, which defines him as an auteur.

With the advancement of time comes the addition of new auteurs to this distinguished list. The esteemed new auteurs of then become the legendary movie directors and television producers of now that are held in such high regard. New auteurs continue this cycle which is why it is important to identify them. Shonda Rhimes is one of those new auteurs.

Rhimes has created a land, ShondaLand, in which three of her television shows resides. ShondaLand_logoThese television texts can be identified with each other even before the common ShondaLand logo is seen because they share characteristics of other ShondaLand productions. This paper seeks to prove that Shonda Rhimes is an auteur via auteur criticism. Through the use of complex characters who parallel their respective clients and patients, common stylistic choices, and the similar use of rapid fire dialogue Rhimes’ authorial voice is affirmed.

Shonda Rhimes is “the first African-American woman to write and produce a top 10-rated show on network TV” (Rizzo, 2011). Rhimes serves as creator, writer, and producer of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal which are three of her most well known works. She also served as producer of the short lived drama Off the Map and upcoming television series Gilded Lilys. With regards to the big screen, she was the writer for the movies Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Crossroads, and The Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement. In recognition of her talent Rhimes has won the following awards: 2007 Television Producer of the Year, 2007 Golden Globe for Outstanding Television Drama, 2007 Lucy Award for Excellence in Television, multiple NAACP Image Awards starting from 2007, 2006 Writer’s Guild Award for Best New Series, 2009 GLSEN Respect Award Honoree, and the 2012 GLAAD Golden Gate Award. (Shondaland Snapshot) Without a doubt Rhimes has accomplished quite a lot.  

Rhimes’ show Grey’s Anatomy centers around the doctors of Seattle Grace Hospital and more specifically Meredith Grey and her life as first an intern and then an eventual resident of the hospital. Each episode new medical cases are presented and the doctors must work together to save the patients that are entrusted to them. Rhimes said she did not want to make a medical show but “a relationship show with surgery” (The Paley Center for Media, 2007) which is what she did. Private Practice is a spin-off of Grey’s Anatomy which follows Addison Montgomery, a world class neonatal surgeon, who resigns from Seattle Grace Hospital to work at a private practice in Los Angeles with her friends from med school. The most recent series by Rhimes’ is Scandal which is based on real life crisis manager Judy Smith. Olivia Pope, who portrays Smith, is the leader of the crisis management firm who can command a room with ease. The firm takes on high profile cases with the potential to cause a scandal if the crisis is not resolved by the firm.

Auteur criticism is a type of television criticism that focuses on the thematic and stylistic features that are shared between multiple works of the person regarded as the creative force behind the television text. This producer centered approach is used to affirm that television can be an artform and some creators deserve to be thought of as auteurs. The whole point of this type of criticism is identifying a new auteur. Doing so requires extensive research on television series done by a common producer. Watching multiple episodes of multiple series penned by the potential auteur is what is done to identify the themes and features of the series. The textbook “Critical Approaches to Television” provides Aaron Spelling as an example of this type of criticism. The stylistic features by Spelling are identified as heavily orchestrated musical themes and heavy use of high-key lighting and a stylized symmetrical use of close-ups, two shots, three shots, and long shots. A few thematic elements of his are identified as social relevance and the myth that good eventually triumphs over evil (Vande Burg, 2004, pp. 239-240). Some of the characteristics that define Shonda Rhimes as an auteur will be explored below.

In all of Rhimes’ work the characters presented come with baggage which adds complexity to the plotline. The subsequent baggage they carry is gradually exposed in ways that mirror their clients in order to capture the audience’s attention. In the season 1 premiere of Scandal Olivia Pope is presented as a woman who is looked up to and is very powerful. When learning who hired her, Quinn looks baffled when she says “the Olivia Pope?!” and references to her like she is a god (Rhimes & McGuigan, April 5, 2012). A large plot component for most of the first season is Amanda Tanner, a woman who claims to have had an affair with the President of the United States which Olivia does not believe at first. Gradually, after verbally attacking the woman via the President’s orders, she believes her story thanks to two words she says “sweet baby” (Rhimes & McGuigan, April 5, 2012). From those two words Pope knew she was telling the truth because those were the words he used with her. Olivia’s baggage is her affair with the president and that was revealed thanks to someone else’s affair with him.

shonda-rhimes-shondaland-entertainment-weekly-9315
Rhimes (center) on the cover of Entertainment Weekly with the main characters of her shows: Grey’s Anatomy, How To Get Away With Murder, and Scandal.

Another example of this motif is in episode 4 of season 1. Olivia and associates is hired by a South American dictator to find his wife and children. Eventually Abby, one of the associates, finds her at a women’s shelter and learns she is trying to escape from her husband. This case closely mirrored Abby’s own issue with her husband so she decided to go against the client and aid the woman in escaping and seeking asylum. Olivia caught wind of this and put a stop to it. Abby changed her mind by reminding her of what she did for Abby and her abusive husband: “When Charles fractured three of my ribs and broke my jaw and threw me out into the snow in my nightgown, Olivia Pope took a tire iron and broke his kneecap and got me the best divorce attorney in the state and got me out of that marriage” (Rhimes & Katleman, April 26, 2012). This is another example of how the complexities of the characters unpack themselves through issues with their clients. In the series opener of  Private Practice Naomi and Sam, who co-own the practice with everyone else, are getting through a divorce. When one of their patients dies in the process of donating sperm to his much younger girlfriend a conflict arises. The wife of Ken, the donor, wants the sperm that the girlfriend Leslie wants. Naomi eventually convinces Maria, his wife, to let Leslie have it. When asked what she told Maria she replies “just that it was time to let him go” while looking at Sam meaningful (Rhimes & Tinker, September 26, 2007) . The patient dilemma directly mirrors Naomi’s problem with Sam as Ken left Maria just like Sam left Naomi. Naomi learn that it is time to let Sam go much like Maria let Ken go. Lastly, another example of this was in the 14th episode of the 6th season of Grey’s Anatomy. A roof collapse at a restaurant on Valentines day brings in a rush of people to the emergency room. The dishwasher of the restaurant was forgotten about when everyone fled so subsequently he arm was severed. Lexi Grey, Meredith Grey’s sister, and Jackson Avery were assigned to clean up his arm. Lexi, who just broke up with Mark Sloan an attending, dyed her hair from brunette to blonde for a change. As they are working Jackson asks about her breakup. In response, Lexi said “He decided we were going to start a family together and didn’t even ask me. He forgot I was even there. He left me lying in dirty dishwater.” to which Jackson responded “you can’t just change your hair you have to actually change” (Rhimes & Cragg, February 11, 2012). This shows the parallel between Lexi and the dishwasher who were both forgotten by their respective people. This provides for an answer for Lexi, she must change who she is so she will not be forgotten.

Another shared quality between these three television texts is the stylistic choices found throughout. The use of consistent, but unique to the show, transitions, the use of a montage to stimulate the passage of time, and a racially diverse cast. Each show has their own transition style that they stick to. Scandal uses the shutter of a camera to jump from one scene to another. Grey’s Anatomy shows scenes from the Seattle skyline and Private Practice transitions very bluntly without any special effects. All three of the texts use a montage for example during Scandal Olivia and associates were gathering evidence about their client and throughout that time music was playing and transition with the shutter effect were constant to keep the audience’s attention. Lastly, all three of casts are racially diverse which is something Rhimes has been applauded for. On her diverse cast she said “ we read every actor for every single part. My goal was simply to cast the best actors” (The Paley Center for Media, 2007). The last common characteristic mentioned was the rapid style of dialogue that is found in all of the texts. In Scandal Olivia is known for talking very fast especially when putting together the pieces of a case or when confronting an oppositional force. Similarly, the doctors on Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice execute their rapid fire dialogue when commanding a room during a surgery and something goes wrong. When asked about the speed of the dialogue Rhimes said the pace was “born of me not wanting actors to linger in the moments, in the sense of it’s a world in which everyone is really incredibly busy, and there is no time for your feelings.” (eurzimbio, November 8, 2012).

Shonda Rhimes deserves to be called an auteur because her authorial voice is is not only heard, it is listened to by the audience of her television texts. Those things that make up her signature voice are complex characters who parallel the problems presented to them which provide an answer to their problem, common stylistic features, and a signature dialogue that ties into each of the texts. Shonda Rhimes has now been identified as a successful auteur and any television text one might see in the future with these common characteristics can be attributed to Rhimes.

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References

eurzimbio. (November 8, 2012). Why is the Dialogue so Fast in ABC’s Scandal? retrieved from http://www.zimbio.com/Shonda+Rhimes/articles/Qv90RqueWOa/Dialogue+Fast+ABC+Scandal

The Paley Center for Media. (2007). Shonda Rhimes retrieved from http://www.shemadeit.org/meet/biography.aspx?m=165

Rhimes, S. (writer), & Cragg, S. (director). February 11, 2010. Valentines Day Massacre [Television series episode]. Beers, B., Gordon, M., & Rhimes, S. (producer) Grey’s Anatomy. Los Angeles, CA: ABC Studios.

Rhimes, S. (writer), & Horton, P. (director). March 27, 2005. A Long Day’s Night [Television series episode]. Beers, B., Gordon, M., & Rhimes, S. (producer) Grey’s Anatomy. Los Angeles, CA: ABC Studios.

Rhimes, S. (writer), & Katleman, M. (director). April 26, 2012. Enemy of the State [Television series episode]. Beers, B. & Rhimes, S. (producer) Scandal. Los Angeles, CA: ABC Studios.

Rhimes, S. (writer), & McGuigan, P. (director). April 5, 2012. Sweet Baby [Television series episode]. Beers, B. & Rhimes, S. (producer) Scandal. Los Angeles, CA: ABC Studios.

Rhimes, S. (writer), & Tinker, M. (director). September, 26, 2007. In Which We Meet Addison, a Nice Girl From Somewhere Else [Television series episode]. Beers, B., Gordon, M., & Rhimes, S. (producer) Private Practice. Los Angeles, CA: ABC Studios.

Rizzo, C. (2011). SHONDA RHIMES. Daily Variety, 312(20), 22

Shondaland. (N/A). Shondaland Shapshot. retrieved from www.shondaland.com

Vande Berg, L.R. Wenner, L.A. & Gronbeck, B.E. (Eds.). (2004).  Critical Approaches to Television (2nd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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