The Rise of Shonda Rhimes and TV Melodrama

Grey's Anatomy - ABC

Source: ABC

Melodrama has had a spotted history on television. There was a time where intense relationship drama and corny crying was the territory of daytime soap operas and “very special episodes” of Roseanne. Nowadays though, it’s practically mainstreamed into primetime, thanks in large part to the efforts of one person: Shonda Rhimes. Starting with just one iconic series, Rhime’s career has since proliferated out into a full-on TV empire, essentially ruling the genre over on ABC. Her shows have come to define high-stakes drama, as she’s very cleverly made her way to the top.

Let’s take a look into the one that started it all for Rhimes, Grey’s Anatomy. When it debuted back in 2005, medical procedurals were in full swing. It was a time when ER was still four years away from going off the air, House was in its just second year, and Scrubs was exactly halfway through it’s almost decade-long run. Grey’s though filled a very specific vacuum of drama, featuring ridiculously good-looking doctors dealing with an almost absurd amount of tragedy and conflict.

In its 11-season run, the doctors of Grey’s Anatomy have sadistically been subjected to: A train crash, a bomb scare, a ferry crash, being left at the altar, a meth lab explosion, a hospital shooting, and a plane crash. If all that happened to a single city in real life, we’d assume they were in a war-torn third world country. Instead, it’s in Shonda Rhimes’s depiction of a Seattle hellscape where no vehicle is safe, and doctor’s have a worse mortality rate than the patients they treat. And yet somehow, the show has managed to root itself enough in reality to gather an enormous and insanely devoted audience. Rhime’s brand of melodrama has taken all the tropes of soap operas and made them socially acceptable in a primetime environment. 

Her collection series have since extended far outside of Grey’s, into the spinoff Private Practice, and of course the wildly popular Scandal. For the latter show, Rhimes depicts an impossibly dramatic presidency in which the Chief-of-Staff has a not-very-well-hidden affair with a D.C. powerplayer, and generally endangers the entire world because their love is real. But the audience for Scandal is equally as vast and committed, choosing to set aside logic in favor of consuming melodrama in its most extreme form. For the same reason reality TV is appealing, Rhime’s collection of shows is addictive and entertaining in all the best and worst ways.

There’s really no one else who taps into that basic need for intense drama the way Rhimes does. We see parallels in a network like The CW, but their audience is decidedly younger than that of Grey’sScandal, et al. Over her decade plus in the industry, she’s co-opted an audience that never before had resided in network primetime. Now there’s a place for that demographic to indulge in skillfully overwrought TV, managing to fall smack dab in the middle of the spectrum between “guilty-pleasure watching” and “an appropriate amount of drama for an average series.”

All the Rhimes properties are continuing to soldier on, continuing to open up ABC’s special niche of television. Thanks to her, melodrama is alive and well in today’s expansive world of offerings, something that few (if any) following her will likely be able to duplicate quite to her level of success. For better or worse, melodrama is alive and well in the hands of Shonda Rhimes.

Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest

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