Shonda Rhimes knows what she wishes the legacy of “Grey’s Anatomy” would be.
“The number of women who have become doctors because of that show is magical to me,” she says, sounding pleased during a recent interview for Variety’s Show Woman of the Year issue. “The number of people who’ve come to me and told me that they learned how to do CPR, or figured out that they were having a heart attack because of that show, is magical to me.”
But she’s realistic about what it likely is.
“Sadly, I think the legacy might simply just be that we made it possible for more people of color to have jobs on camera on television,” Rhimes says, “which makes me embarrassed for television.”
“Grey’s Anatomy,” which premiered on ABC in 2005, was Rhimes’ first television show — and yes, even she is surprised that it began its 18th season this fall. “I have a 19-year-old who’s in college right now,” she says. “And when that 19-year-old was strapped to my chest as a baby, I wrote a show, and that show is still on the air.”
She’s also well aware of how revolutionary “Grey’s” was when it premiered, simply by presenting the world as it is. The Season 1 cast featured Sandra Oh as Dr. Cristina Yang, along with three Black actors — Chandra Wilson, James Pickens Jr. and Isaiah Washington — as doctors at the Seattle hospital where the show is set.
“It sounds arrogant to say it, but to me it makes me sad to have to say it,” she says. “We changed the faces that you see on television. And it should not have taken so long for that to happen.”
When people would tell Rhimes — even while praising the show’s inclusive casting — that she’d constructed an unrealistic universe for “Grey’s,” she would bristle, she recalls: “My favorite thing to hear was, ‘Oh, that feels like a fantasy!’ And I’d be like, ‘So basically, the reality that I live in feels like a fantasy to you.”
In Season 14, Rhimes gave “Grey’s” over to its current showrunner, Krista Vernoff, who was one of the show’s original writers. “Creatively, I’ve handed off all the reins entirely,” Rhimes says. “And the best reason I can say for doing that is because if I had any creative involvement, then I would have notes. And if I had notes, people would have to take those notes. And if people had to take those notes, then suddenly it’s not their show anymore.
“And I want very much this for this to be Krista Vernoff’s show, and Krista Vernoff’s creative vision.”
The day of our interview, Ellen Pompeo, who’s led the show as Meredith Grey since its start, was in the news for recounting on her podcast an argument that she’d had with Denzel Washington when he directed a 2016 episode of “Grey’s.” Rhimes is currently laser-focused on writing “Queen Charlotte,” a prequel series for “Bridgerton,” and hadn’t seen the headlines. It proved to be difficult to describe exactly why a “Grey’s” episode from five years ago was being discussed at all. “Oh, the episode like years ago?” Rhimes asks, sounding mystified.
After a weak attempt to summarize the backlash against Pompeo — “She said she told him, ‘Listen motherfucker, this is my show!’” — the eventual question was: Is it a relief that issues on “Grey’s” aren’t her problem anymore?
“I don’t think of it that way,” Rhimes says. “The relief and the luxury that I have is that I don’t really pay attention to Twitter or Instagram — or articles. So I feel like, whatever happens, happens. But I also feel like Ellen’s going to be Ellen.”
Perhaps that’s the kind of perspective that comes after 18 seasons — and counting.
When “Grey’s” does eventually come to an end, whenever that is, does Rhimes know what will happen in the series finale? “I’ve written the end of that series, I want to say, a good eight times,” Rhimes says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘And that will be the end!’ Or, ‘That’ll be the final thing that’s ever said or done!’ And all of those things have already happened. So I give up on that, you know what I mean?”
But when “Grey’s” ends will be her decision, Rhimes says.
“Am I the person who decides when the show is over? Yes. And I take full responsibility for that when or if everybody gets mad at me,” as she smiles.
With Vernoff running “Grey’s,” though, she’s unsure of how much input she’ll actually have in the finale: “Am I going to be the person who decides like what the final scene is? I don’t know!”
Thinking about it more, Rhimes continues. “If you’d ask me this question three years ago, or prior to Krista arriving, I would have said, ‘Yes, I can tell you exactly how it’s going to end,” she says. “But once you hand off the ball for real, it’s just different. So I don’t know yet.”
Now firmly — and happily — ensconced at Netflix, with the sensation of the “Bridgerton”-verse rolling along, and her own limited series “Inventing Anna” premiering in February, she looks back on “Grey’s” sounding almost wistful.
“It was my very first television show,” Rhimes says. “It was something I made up 20 years ago and it’s still there, and still existing.
“It’s inspiring to me!”
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