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The Five Essential Elements Of Every Shonda Rhimes Show

The Five Essential Elements Of Every Shonda Rhimes Show: Kerry Washington, Viola Davis and Ellen Pompeo

Kerry Washington, Viola Davis and Ellen Pompeo

How To Get Away With Murder is the latest bid by the broadcast networks to captivate viewers this fall TV season. Murder revolves around fearless criminal law professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) and the cases she takes on (with her faithful students helping her solve/defend). It is also the newest project ushered into fruition by Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal mastermind, TV powerhouse Shonda Rhimes.

Although Rhimes serves only as executive producer of Murder — as has been pointed out quite a bit lately, she’s not the showrunner — it shares quite a few similarities with other ShondaLand productions. You know a Shonda show when you’re watching it, and here’s why.

Familiar Faces-Turned-Major-Heartthrobs

Patrick Dempsey on Grey

Patrick Dempsey on Grey’s Anatomy

Before Grey’s Anatomy premiered, those who knew of or recognized Patrick Dempsey (aka McDreamy) did so because of his charming turn in beloved ‘80s romcom Can’t Buy Me Love. (Maybe also Sweet Home Alabama.) Grey’s put Dempsey back on the heartthrob map in a major way.

Same goes for Scandal star Tony Goldwyn, who is currently enjoying a plum position of power as the President — but before this role, he was perhaps most recognized for being the baddie opposite Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost. (Private Practice alum Taye Diggs doesn’t quite qualify as he’s never not been a heartthrob.)

Overly Dramatic Drama

The procedural elements of the shows (medicine, murder, scandalous bad decisions, etc.) make way for many memorable moments, but more often than not the scenarios are way over-the-top and increasingly outlandish as seasons progress. Past examples include: two train passengers impaled together by a pole on Grey’s Anatomy; a mentally ill patient attacks her doctor on Private Practice, cuts her baby out of her pregnant belly and steals it; the MacGyver-esque nature of the procedures on the short-lived Off the Map; all of the torture scenes and plotlines on Scandal. And don’t even get us started on all of the relationship drama, but we’re eager to watch Davis and her law students try to solve ridiculous murder plots for our entertainment.

Speeches and Monologues Galore

Do you like your lead characters to move the plot along via long-winded, metaphor-rich dialogue? Look no further than a Shonda Show because each and every one has that in spades.

Given that Murder stars Oscar-winner Viola Davis, you can bet heavy we’re in for some statuette-worthy speechifying.

Attractive Lead Characters With Genius Genes (And Mommy/Daddy Issues)

Kerry Washington and Joe Morton on Scandal

Kerry Washington and Joe Morton on Scandal

Scandal’s Olivia Pope and Grey’s Anatomy’s Meredith Grey are brilliant in their respective fields, but a huge part of their brilliance is a credit to equally talented and intelligent parents, whose successes and difficult personalities also happen to weigh heavily on the shoulders of their children. Grey’s cold, difficult mother had an affair with her former boss and Alzheimer’s; Pope’s parents are indirectly and directly responsible for killing a bunch of people.

True-to-Life Diversity

The Cast of ABC

The Cast of ABC’s Private Practice

One of the very best elements of Shonda Shows is their diversity. It’s something that we shouldn’t still have to be talking about and yet we do. NPR’s Linda Holmes recently hosted a dialogue with Rhimes in the wake of the NY Times piece and during their conversation an audience member asked how Rhimes thinks shows have changed the position of African-Americans on television. Holmes writes that in response, Rhimes revealed a poignant bit of knowledge she’d acquired regarding the “Only One” representation of race and gender and sexual orientation on TV:

“She said one of the things she’d learned was that on shows with Only One (only one woman, only one black character, only one Asian person, only one gay character), that’s when the Only One is required to be about nothing except that characteristic. She said her hope was in part that just by having more than Only One on her shows, she gave those characters room to develop and to have other things about them be important. She hopes that — and here’s the rub — by consciously increasing diversity overall she makes the race of each character less limiting, less defining.”


Kara Warner is a writer/reporter living in Los Angeles. Likes: Men in kilts, ladies in power suits, the Denver Broncos. Dislikes: Plastic surgery frozen faces on Bravo, losing, zombies.

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