“In the beginning, we were just trying to stay alive,” said Rhimes. “I had never written a television show before so everything felt like a great experiment… Now, I feel like we’ve gone from being the little upstarts to being the old veterans.”
That great experiment seems to have paid off.
Launching in spring 2005, the medical drama quickly became not only a smash hit for ABC, but a Friends-like cultural phenomenon as well. It later anchored the network’s lineup in a cutthroat Thursday at 9 p.m. time slot, and in 2007 spun off Private Practice, which airs an hour later. Now, Rhimes and former Grey’s Anatomy writer Jenna Bans are prepping an unrelated third show, Off the Map, launching January 12.
While the ratings for Grey’s have slipped from its heyday in Season 3, when it grabbed an average audience of 21.1 million viewers, the show is still a major success story for ABC and has undergone a creative resurgence of late, resulting in an outpouring of renewed adoration among viewers.
Last year’s season finale—in which a gunman stalked the halls of Seattle Grace and turned his weapon on several doctors, including Patrick Dempsey’s Derek Shepherd, Kevin McKidd’s Owen, and Justin Chambers’ Alex—has reinvigorated the show and added an aura of danger and desperation surrounding the characters. The miscarriage experienced by Meredith ( Ellen Pompeo), Derek’s fears that his wife will inherit Alzheimer’s, and the PTSD suffered by Cristina ( Sandra Oh) have advanced the characters while still rendering them human and relatable.
Additionally, Rhimes and her writing team have been able to focus on old-fashioned storytelling rather than tabloid fodder. The behind-the-scenes drama involving former cast members Katherine Heigl, T.R. Knight, and Isaiah Washington, which has often put the on-screen drama in the backseat, has abated.
“I’d love to think the positive response is because people are enjoying the narrative of the show,” said Rhimes. “However, I do think that any time the focus of the audience on a show becomes what is going on off-screen instead of on-screen, it affects how they view the show.”
Grey’s has always been willing to offer the audience some extremely polarizing storylines, such as the relationship between Izzie (Heigl) and George (Knight) and Izzie’s hallucinations of the dead Denny (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), to name but two. Rhimes maintains that she appreciates how fans have a sense of ownership over Grey’s and its characters.
“I like it when we’re polarizing,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed whatever reaction we’re getting because at least that means that people are watching.”
That reaction can be rather vehement. Grey’s fans aren’t wallflowers when it comes to decrying plot twists or relationship breakups. For her part, Rhimes has shown a willingness to make herself available on Twitter, often spending hours answering questions thrown at her.
“I like the fact that you get to see instant reaction to things,” said Rhimes. “I also like when a reporter reports a story about the show that sends the fans into a tizzy and it’s not true, I can simply say it’s not true.”
However, she often finds herself repeatedly answering the same queries.
“I have an 8-year-old daughter and, not to liken them to children, but there is something a bit childlike about asking the same question over and over again and expecting that the answer will be different,” said Rhimes.
“ Are Mark and Addison ever going to get together? Since they’re on two totally different shows, it makes it hard for that to ever happen. Which character do you love the most? That always cracks me up because it doesn’t really work that way. Is Izzie coming back? Is George coming back? Is Burke coming back? Are Meredith and Derek going to have a baby? I feel like they’re asking because they care and it does tell me where their mind-set is a lot of the time.”
Private Practice, meanwhile, has developed its own identity over the last four seasons. While Rhimes was initially keen to keep the two shows from being associated with one another, they have given her a two-hour stronghold on Thursdays with a predominantly female audience. Still, there are innate differences between the two shows.
“The audience is not as rigid in terms of what they’d like to see happen,” she said. “They’re much more open to all the character possibilities… It feels a lot more grown up to me. Yes, there’s still a world which is connected to Grey’s and I’m fine that we’re interweaving them, but they’re such different shows both emotionally.”
Both shows haven’t shied away from dealing with tough subjects and tonight’s episode of Private Practice faces the rape of a major character head on. Rhimes said that there wasn’t any trepidation about dealing with such a hot-button issue.
“I knew this was what I wanted us to do,” she said. “I was worried about how KaDee Strickland who plays [rape victim] Charlotte would feel about it, but she was really on board and wanted to tell the story… It was one of those instances where I said I’m going to write this thing and everybody just said, that sounds great, do it right.”
Juggling oversight on both shows, Rhimes will also launch a third, Off the Map, next year. The show, created by Jenna Bans and executive produced by Rhimes, revolves around the doctors of a remote medical clinic in the Amazon. Off the Map feels different than its predecessors in terms of tone and location but connects to some universal qualities of all of Rhimes’ shows.
“It was created and written by Jenna Bans, not by me, and I feel like she has an extremely unique voice,” said Rhimes. “I feel like all of our shows have very real three-dimensional characters and smart, messy women, which I always feel is really what our brand is more than anything else.”
It’s a rare feat these days that an executive producer has three shows on the air at once, much less has their flagship reach a seventh season. Rhimes said that she hasn’t yet thought about an end date for Grey’s Anatomy.
“I don’t know if that’s up to me,” she said. “It’s a franchise unlike Lost. It’s not a show based on a wonderful, unfolding mystery that you have to get to the end of… Have I thought about the show ending? All the time, absolutely. Have I thought about it going forever? All the time, absolutely.”
Given its age, Grey’s will likely see the departure of its original core actors at some point. While other shows—such as ER—have dealt with this, Pompeo’s Meredith Grey appears in the show’s title itself. While Grey’s Anatomy has revolved around Meredith’s romantic and professional complications, there is another Grey in the mix: Lexie ( Chyler Leigh). But if Pompeo—whose contract is reportedly up for renewal at the end of next season—were to leave, could the show go on without her?
“I honestly don’t know,” Rhimes said. “I try really hard not to think about what’s going to happen when our originals are gone. Ellen Pompeo is still over there on the stage working and as long as she’s still over there, I’m going to think about it in terms of it being Grey’s Anatomy.”
After seven seasons, however, what surprises Rhimes is that the show has lasted this long.
Rhimes: “Have I thought about the show ending? All the time, absolutely. Have I thought about it going forever? All the time, absolutely.”
“I thought we were doing 13 episodes and then that was going to be it,” she said. “Not in any cynical way, just television is fickle. You never know how things are going to work out. I’m very surprised we’re still here.”
Surprised or not, it seems Grey’s Anatomy will be sticking around at ABC for some time to come, possibly long enough to have this discussion in another seven years.
“Oh, dear god, please no,” said Rhimes, laughing.
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.