The Holy Return of Shondaland: The Blessedly Insane Premieres of 'Grey's,' 'Scandal,' and 'HTGAWM'

Her three wildly popular creations—Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder—finally returned Thursday. For us, it was a religious experience.

The pope in the U.S. on #TGIF? It’s no coincidence.

The pontiff arrived just in time to bless Shondaland, TV’s Garden of Eden, where things are handled and murders are gotten away with and dreams are McDreamed. The gates to Shondaland were opened again Thursday night, with the returns of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder. And, as St. Shonda decreed, it was good.

ABC’s #TGIT lineup is a marvel achievement: three dramas from the production house run by the same woman. The same black woman. Shonda Rhimes is a trailblazer, because of the barriers she’s knocked down but also what she’s managed to accomplish once she charged over them.

Viola Davis, who stars as Annalise Keating on How to Get Away With Murder, became the first black woman to win an Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Drama. In her speech, Davis poignantly said, “The only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Shonda Rhimes is opportunity.

She’s a crusader, not for simply diversifying the TV landscape she paints so colorfully in, but for normalizing the experiences of those who are so often marginalized, whose stories aren’t told. She’s refused to oblige by Hollywood convention, and in her doggedness—which could just as easily be characterized as tenaciousness—created a new mandate for television.

In Shondaland, there is no shame in owning your story. There are no apologies for loving the silly as much as you appreciate the serious, because you need both to entertain. Shondaland is out of this world and out of its mind, but down to earth and relatable. It’s a haven. Shondaland is sexy and smart and aggressive and over the top, and it is ridiculous and meaningful—and both of those things are OK.

And so we have her three apostles.

There is Dr. Meredith Grey, as frustrating and complicated a lead female character as there’s ever been, and therefore whose journey has been among the most gratifying to travel. The intern who left her post-coital panties in the exam room is now the widowed instructor and voice of reason. Still broken, still figuring her shit out, and still, as she did in the premiere, busting down walls.

Olivia Pope handles things. She is a gladiator in a white suit who can bring the world’s highest powers to bended knee, but who does it without betraying her conscience—and managing that latter feat among the guiltless power players of Washington, D.C., to boot. She’s sexy and she’s sexed, a sadly rare thing for a TV female lead. She’s sleeping with the President of the United States, but she’s the one in command.

And then there’s Annalise Keating. She is domineering and beautiful. She’s among the few women on TV with permission to be excellent at her job, but have a heart and a sex drive that compete with her brain. She is a woman who has been wounded and a woman who has made bad choices. But no one is stronger or more in control of her destiny.

They are each surrounded by a merry band of fools—all vulnerable, confused, and empowered in their own right—and encounter more unbelievable situations each week than a normal human endures in a lifetime.

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Watching Meredith, Olivia, and Annalise in a three-hour block is exhausting. It is emotionally draining to watch these people fall in love and break up, save lives and ruin them, become heroes and make life-altering mistakes.

But hard work bears the fruits of the labor, which explains the ecclesiastical daze you can typically find Shondaland’s visitors in each Friday morning: Blissed out, puffy eyed from crying, and all the better for having worshipped at the altar of St. Shonda.

The new year of #TGIT began with the first Patrick Dempsey- and Dr. Derek Shepherd-less season of Grey’s Anatomy, now in its 12th year. It kicked off with Meredith’s voiceover: “So you might be thinking I’ve been here before. This is familiar. This is old hat. Maybe you’re wondering why are we here? But I promise, you’re about to find out that everything has changed.”

It’s a meta question to begin a show now in its second decade, a show that has seen every calamity and fever-dreamed misfortune occupy a storyline, from strangers who became impaled on the same pole to the man whose bladder was being occupied by a fish that swam up his urine stream into his urethra to, in the premiere, teenage girlfriends who attempted suicide by jumping in front of a train.

Typically when a long-running TV show reaches this time in its run, its attempts at topping itself become off-puttingly outlandish, but Grey’s is pleasantly settled in its familiarity. The bed-hopping is impossible to keep track of at this point, but the beauty is that you don’t need or care to.

The teenage lesbians were perfect fodder for some sudsy monologues about same love that is the show’s calling card. It was properly histrionic and most definitely soundtracked by a lilting cover of a popular pop song, as is the Grey’s M.O.

Heavy-handed? Emotionally manipulative? Sure. But lay the hand on me and manipulate my emotions. That’s what I’m here for. Try and keep me from crying when Dr. Miranda Bailey (played all these years with a gorgeous blend of power and tragedy by Chandra Wilson) is finally named chief. Try.

And then comes Scandal.

Having a little pressure taken off of it as the most aggressively batshit TV show on television now that Empire is around, Scandal premiered with a more confident and measured episode. Well, as measured as an episode that reappropriates the death of Princess Diana for its salacious case of the week can possibly be.

The Princess of Caledonia (LOL) is found dead on American soil and Olivia must find out why. She’s Anne Hathaway in this Princess Diaries scenario, a common girl who rose into royalty, and there’s a Julie Andrews, too. “I know you can’t save her life, Olivia. But maybe you can save her dignity,” the queen says. This dialogue. It’s Shakespearean schlock, and it is unrivaled.

Elsewhere, Portia de Rossi is doing her best acting yet on this show, dressing down Bellamy Young’s Mellie Grant, whose hair is reaching new stratospheres. Mellie and Cyrus (Jeff Perry) are still reeling from their parts in the murder of 12 jurors. Oh, and Julie Andrews totally murdered that princess. Cue Olivia: “You were right. Not all fairy tales have happy endings. But Evil Queens? They always go down.” This dialogue!!!

But it’s all about Olivia and Fitz, who are finally together and having lots and lots of TV sex just racy enough to make my mom definitely change the channel in embarrassment. There is so much talk in television about the sins of getting a will they/won’t they couple together. Not on Scandal! Being together breeds fascinating material about boundaries and the importance of building a solid structure for the relationship.

Olivia says she doesn’t want to go public with their relationship until that foundation is built, but, somehow, the press catches wind. The secret four seasons in the making is out. The “Category 5 of Secrets,” say ABC’s promos for next week. And a hurricane’s coming! These promos are everything. Speaking of…

How to Get Away With Murder, as was plugged incessantly, is responsible for what I irrefutably consider to be the nine most important words ever asked on television: “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?”

We have since, through a season ripe with hairpin twists and turns and countless shots of an anonymous cheerleader spinning in the air, gotten the answer to that question. We now have other phone-related inquiries, like: Who is Eggs 911, the person Lyla texted from her phone right before she was killed? So, yessir! We do have another murder to get away with.

Two, potentially, as a last-second shot of what is to come in two months shows Viola Davis bleeding on the floor, possibly murdered herself. (But absolutely not murdered because Viola Davis is the star of this show and the biggest miracle to ever happen to television.)

There’s promise in the seeds planted in this season two. Those seeds are flamboyant as hell and will grow into completely deranged flowers. But lunatic plants are in season and we love them.

Bonnie has finally done something interesting—she murdered Lyla. Annalise is rekindling things with a former lesbian lover played by Famke Janssen, presumably with an agenda to help get away with assorted murders. (Win an Emmy on Sunday, make out with Dr. Jean Grey on Thursday!) The one guy from Orange Is the New Black is double-crossing Annalise, and there’s a big, splashy new case for the Scooby gang to solve.

There’s still messiness to the show—the HIV storyline is so Shonda Rhimes and still so problematic—but by the time Annalise puts her party wig on and takes tequila shots at the rave in the end, we’re still on board.

Because perfection is not part of Shondaland’s commandments. In fact, messiness is embraced. You cringe a lot when you watch a Shonda Rhimes show—maybe there’s too much blood, maybe the characters are making grave mistakes, or maybe the writing has veered too much toward cheesy.

But it’s the way her series jolt your eyes open—to the world that’s really outside, not just the one we normally see on our TVs, and maybe even to yourself—that makes Shonda Rhimes our holy one. Now kiss the ring.