There is not really a serious contender who could take on Shonda Rhimes for the role of most powerful female showrunner or most powerful black showrunner in television. This is particularly true tonight as ABC launches freshman legal drama “How To Get Away With Murder,” a creation of Rhimes protégé Pete Nowalk that is produced under the auspices of Rhimes’ company ShondaLand, that makes Thursday nights on the network all Shonda, all the time.
Even with that title secure, it is interesting to think of the nature of Rhimes’ influence. Does her dominance of a whole night of network television prove that Rhimes can turn anything to gold? Or is “How To Get Away With Murder” proof that Rhimes has perfected a formula, but that ABC is not yet willing to take her Midas touch out for a real spin?
As Slate television critic Willa Paskin wrote in her review of the pilot, “Set at the fictional Middleton Law School in Philadelphia, ‘Murder,’ like ‘Grey’s,’ focuses on a highly competitive, extremely bright, very attractive, multiracial group of classmates, as they try to please an exceedingly demanding teacher. Like ‘Scandal,’ it throws those classmates into a high-octane, high-stakes, high-plot world, where ethics dim before the allure of an astonishingly competent, black female professional. It is simultaneously totally fun and somehow wan: kicky and fast and, so far, just a copycat.”
Pete Nowalk is white, gay and a man, all things that might give him a different perspective from Rhimes. But rather than selling “How To Get Away With Murder” as something different from a fresh new voice stepping out on its own, ABC has emphasized the similarities between “Murder” and “Scandal” and played up the Rhimes connection.
That New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley, who initially misattributed the show to Rhimes, did not check to make sure Rhimes was the creative force behind “Murder” is inexcusable. But her initial confusion is not.
ABC’s promotional schtick calcifies Rhimes’ sphere of influence and the types of shows that she is able to nurture, rather than expanding it. ABC may have given a full night over to Rhimes and Rhimes-ian shows, but they are all the same kinds of shows: what Time critic James Poniewozik dubbed “OMG TV.”
None of which is to say that Rhimes is not trying to break into new tones and genres and mentor new writers. In addition to the shows Rhimes has created and run herself, ShondaLand, her production company, put together “Off The Map,” a medical drama set in South America. Rhimes worked with the comedy writer Issa Rae to develop a sitcom called “I Hate L.A. Dudes” that ABC developed, but did not move to air, and took another stab at the genre last fall. And ShondaLand is working on a post-apocalyptic cop drama, too.
Rhimes is not alone in any of this. Plenty of shows get ordered to pilot season that never make it to air — it is a function of the process, rather than any reflection on the production companies that participate in it.
And it is not as if other superstar showrunners never get associated with tones and formats. Last summer, “Two and a Half Men” creator Chuck Lorre had to make an impassioned pitch to critics that “Mom,” his latest multi-camera sitcom about a single mother (Anna Faris) and her own, wild parent (Allison Janney) was actually a shift from his most recent work.
Still, I look forward to the day when Shonda Rhimes’ banner is splashed all over a comedy about a laconic lady slacker, a bright, unconflicted romantic comedy, or a melancholic, lingering indie drama. Rhimes is such a distinct, fabulous soloist. It would be missing the point to use her considerable influence just to recruit a chorus of showrunners who sound exactly like her.