In Shondaland, life is always busy and sometimes controversial

When you go to ABC on Thursdays, you're stepping into Shondaland. All three shows -- "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and the new "How to Get Away with Murder" -- are produced by Shonda Rhimes and have key things in common. But does that make Rhimes a dictator, in the manner of some of her characters? That question bubbled up anew this week and I had a chance to ask about it this summer. Here's the story I sent to papers today:


Just so we’re clear on this, Shonda Rhimes is not,
apparently, an angry black woman. Any similarity to Annalise Keating, the
powerhouse character in her new show, is slight and coincidental.

That question came up this week, after a New York Times
piece tried to praise Rhimes and her “How to Get Away with Murder.” The result
drew complaints and apologies.

But the question also came up in July, when she met the Television
Critics Association. We asked her then if Keating – very much in control,
ruling the room – felt autobiographical. “I didn’t write it and so it’s not
about me,” Rhimes said. “She’s not like me at all.”

Would she like to be like Keating? “I find her … a
fascinating, interesting character who’s writ incredibly complex … There are
aspects of her that we all wish we could be like,” Rhimes said.

What about the younger “Murder” co-stars? On the show, they
play new law students intimidated by Keating, their professor; do they find
Rhimes or Davis intimidating?

“Definitely,” said Karla Souza. “They demand a presence when
they walk in the room. And it’s invigorating to feel on your toes all the time ….
They’re people we obviously admire a lot.”

Rhimes is, after all, not your usual TV producer. She has an
entire night of scripted TV dramas – something that apparently hasn’t happened
since Aaron Spelling in the early 1980s.

It’s easy to envision her as a domineering auteur, molding
everything under her “Shondaland” production banner. Those shows have similar strengths
(vivid dialog, strong visuals and music, award-winning diversity) and flaws
(plot twists that sometimes spin wildly into soap/telenovela turf).

So it’s simple to imagine Rhimes as a real-life Keating or
Bailey (“Grey’s Anatomy”) or Pope (“Scandal”). In the Times piece, Alessandra
Stanley praised her, saying she took “the trite but persistent caricature of
the angry black woman, recast it in her own image, and made it enviable.” She
also opened by suggesting that Rhimes’ autobiography be “How to Get Away with
Being an Angry Black Woman.”

That drew the complaints and the Times apologies.

Certainly, TV has had its auteurs. There were seasons when
Aaron Sorkin and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason each wrote all 22 episodes of “The
West Wing” and “Designing Women,” respectively.

But auteurs usually only do one show; the notion of
producing several shows is better left to an easygoing delegator, in the
Spelling style. Rhimes created “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Scandal,”
but out of 437 episodes, she’s listed as the writer of only 41 and the director
of zero. She didn’t create “Murder”; that was done by Peter Nowalk, a
Shondaland producer-writer.

“Putting normal people in extreme circumstances (is) very
appealing,” Nowalk said. “What’s more extreme than being a first-year law
student who’s kind of innocent and naïve and thrust into a murder?”

Then he created a role strong enough to lure Oscar-nominee
Viola Davis. Her movie roles, she said, are “like being invited to a really
fabulous party, only to hold up the wall. I wanted to be the show.”

“How to Get Away with Murder,” 10 p.m.
Thursdays, ABC; debuts Sept. 25