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'Grey's' takes a scalpel to standard procedure

May 15, 2005|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Say you were pitching a television show about a group of writers working on ... a television show. Why not? Plenty of tension and dramatic potential -- clash of egos, on-set romance, big chance for failure. Not to mention the opportunity for some very snappy dialogue. Think "Sports Night" meets "The Dick Van Dyke Show," think "West Wing" but with groovier clothes and more Hollywood gossip.

At the heart you would want a young show runner, preferably a woman and first-timer to give you your basic "fish out of water" dramatic template. She'd need a stalwart supporter -- a TV veteran who can teach her the ropes, give the occasional kindly lecture about how life actually works in this town.

And then there would be the ensemble -- a disparate assortment of writers whose inter-personal exchanges would fuel the plotline, which boils down to: Can a hastily assembled group of complete strangers produce a midseason medical drama with numbers good enough to prove that the Hollywood dream machine is still up and running?

The answer, of course, is "yes." And if the creative team behind "Grey's Anatomy" weren't so busy producing a hit show, they could just star in one.

At the center would be Shonda Rhimes, an African American Dartmouth-educated screenwriter and single mother. Her demographics make her remarkable enough -- female show runners may not be as rare as they once were, but you can count on one hand those who are women of color. And then there's the attitude.

A sign on her office door reads: "Princesses Welcome. Complainers Banned." Which pretty much says it all.

"I absolutely believe in the 'no [jerks] rule,' " she says. "I did not want to work with someone I did not like as a human being. I used the rule in casting and I used the rule in hiring writers, and you know, it really works for me."

ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" follows a group of doctors through their first-year surgical residency at a Seattle hospital. At its heart is Meredith Grey, a prickly, independent sort whose ambition, and ambivalence, is fueled by the fact that her mother was a gifted surgeon and now suffers from Alzheimer's.

Much more a personal drama than medical drama, with surprisingly complex characters, the show instantly established a large audience. From the enviable slot behind "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy" debuted midseason with 21 million viewers, a number that has increased.

"I wanted to create a show that I wanted to watch," says Rhimes. "I wanted it to be about women, about competitive women who were like me and my friends.

"The guys [on the writing staff] will groan sometimes," she adds, "and say, 'Oh, man, that is such a chick moment.' And I say, 'Those moments are why I watch television. So it stays.' "

Rhimes is still in shock over the show's success, for which she credits the writing team and the cast, and the fact that when the pilot got picked up she had no idea how to run a television show. So beyond her one hiring rule, she had few other guidelines.

"I had never written a television show before," she says. "So I wrote a pilot with 97 scenes. I didn't know you couldn't do that. And as it turns out, you can. Why not?"

Likewise, after some people seemed shocked that she would introduce her lead character as a woman emerging grouchily from a one-night stand, Rhimes just shrugged. "I was very surprised," she said. "I mean, how many episodes of 'Sex and the City' do you have to watch?"

When she was hiring writers, it never occurred to her that she shouldn't hire more women than men, so she did -- only three of the 10 writers are men, and one of them is part of a married-couple writing team. "People kept saying how strange that was," Rhimes says. "But men hire men because they're more comfortable with them. So maybe I'll help even things out."

And she certainly didn't understand why everyone the casting directors originally sent her was white. Rhimes suggested Ellen Pompeo, whom she had admired in "Moonlight Mile," for Meredith Grey, but she quickly made it clear she wanted to see actors of every color for every role. "They sent me all these white actors and I was like, 'Are you kidding?' " she says. "The only role written with race in mind was [Miranda] Bailey. I saw Bailey as tiny and adorable and blond because I thought it would be funny for the Nazi to be tiny and adorable and blond. But then I got the tape of Chandra Wilson [who is black], and there went that idea."

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