What Shonda Rhimes’ Big Move Could Mean for Netflix, Broadcast TV and Her Shows

Shonda Rhimes Netflix
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As one of the “Grey’s Anatomy” doctors might put it: “Seriously?!”

Netflix has lured Shonda Rhimes away from ABC. It’s a coup for the streaming giant, of course. That’s the first takeaway.

But the second is a little more nerve-wracking. I hope Rhimes doesn’t ditch all the baggage that comes with putting shows on a broadcast network.

Of course, it’ll be fascinating to see what Rhimes and her team do when they’re freed from the strictures of a broadcast network. But it’d be a shame if the procedural baby got thrown out with the bathwater.

What America doesn’t need is more streaming dramas that sag and drift. Rhimes’ snappy, smartly paced and succinct style of storytelling is the antithesis of a lot of the draggy one-hours in the streaming realm (and elsewhere).

So the question is, will Netflix change her or will she change it? It’s too soon to tell, but I’m pulling for the latter.

Since “Grey’s Anatomy” debuted a dozen years ago, Rhimes has built her empire atop a series of very solid and conventional foundations. The medical drama is one of the things that broadcast networks often do well — the bedside crisis of the week supplies opportunities for all kinds of accessible and emotional storytelling.

“Grey’s” has its innovative elements — the cast (and the directors and crew) looked like America long before other networks truly got the memo on inclusivity and diversity. Most doctor dramas never had soundtracks as addictive as the one for “Grey’s.” More importantly, it’s never gotten quite enough credit for depicting professional women, in particular women of color, as multi-faceted, complicated human beings. 

All that said, in many ways, “Grey’s” got huge because, at its core, it’s so recognizable and relatable. The relationships and romances at the center of the show are often the draw. The patients and medical dilemmas on screen often follow familiar trajectories. It’s not as heavily serialized as many streaming dramas, and a viewer doesn’t necessarily need to know an overwhelming amount of mythology to enjoy an installment of the show. 

“How to Get Away With Murder,” even at its most baroque and outlandish, often provides a delicious showcase for star Viola Davis, and it uses the conventions of a prime-time legal drama when it suits the ABC series’ pell-mell needs. For its part, “Scandal” took the political soap opera and jacked it up into something aggressively paced and, at its best, melodramatic in all the most vivid and memorable ways.

It can be a wild ride, but when it works, “Scandal’s” confrontations land with dizzying but entertaining force. And airing on ABC didn’t stop it from being sexy, deadly and full of political sideswipes and pointed commentary. Even when it got serialized (maybe a little too much so in later seasons), the energy of the show kept propelling the narrative forward — something that’s not often said about streaming dramas.

But what about those fun live-tweeting experiences? Sometimes the power of a drama comes from the fact that it is fully immersed in the pop-culture dialogue. In its early days especially, “Scandal” was brought to prominence by the Twitter dialogue around it. And it’s the intense interactivity of the “Scandal” experience that makes me wonder how Rhimes’ shows will work on Netflix.

Even when a show there becomes popular, the reactions to it are more diffuse and slower to build. “Stranger Things,” of course, became a phenomenon last summer, so that kind of explosion can happen for a Netflix offering. But how will Rhimes’ shows — which are often built to be highly accessible and talked about in the moment — function in the streaming arena? Will the new shows she dreams up for Netflix fade out quietly after an initial fanfare?

At this TV-saturated moment, that’s the fate of too many shows on all sorts of networks. TV critics spend some of our rare free time talking with each other about how hard it is to keep up with the deluge of output. It’s very challenging to try to sample every new scripted show in its first season, let alone check out later seasons, which is often when great runs begin to take shape.

According to FX, TV will supply viewers with more than 500 scripted shows this year alone, and Netflix in particular appears to be determined to flood the zone with content, content and more content. Many shows on dozens of networks die quickly, fade out without much fanfare or simply limp along in a semi-void, with few people talking or writing about them. Without the hook of weekly episodes and the attendant social-media chatter, will Rhimes’ new shows be able to break through the clutter?

Of course, Netflix thinks so, hence this sea change, which will continue to reverberate for some time. When the fundamentals of the business are so uncertain and the competition is getting fiercer every day, betting on a name brand is a smart move. The war for talent in TV is as cutthroat as anything that’s happened on Olivia Pope’s watch, and the broadcast networks — or really, all networks without very, very deep pockets — are finding it more and more difficult to hang on to the most notable writer/producers. 

Netflix’s Rhimes coup should be a wakeup call to the broadcast networks: If you can’t bank on name talent, find emerging writers with distinctive voices (which is what Rhimes was in the early aughts, when “Grey’s Anatomy” blew up into a giant hit). Continuing to play it safe, a tendency that (again) pervades too many of the new fall broadcast network shows, is a losing game. 

Business concerns aside, snagging Rhimes’ company, Shondaland, may well be a creative win for Netflix. This development is tantalizing in so many ways. Along with many other TV aficionados, I wonder what ideas Rhimes has that wouldn’t have worked on ABC but may well be right for a platform that allows all kinds of storylines, tones and creative forays. It’ll be exciting to see her and the writers she works with venture into more challenging and risky areas, and engage in more serialization if they think it’s warranted. 

But if her new shows are also accessible, propulsive, full of bittersweet romances and memorable monologues, and have some conventional, familiar elements, I’m unlikely to complain.