The most influential show of the 21st century may just be WarCor, an intense drama about women war correspondents. WarCor also never made it past the early aughts pilot stage. However, it did lead to the creation of Grey’s Anatomy, the very first brick in Shonda Rhimes’ eternally growing television (turned TV-streaming-publishing) empire. While ABC passed on WarCor, they liked it enough to ask Rhimes to pitch again. She turned in what would eventually become the juggernaut that is Meredith Grey’s (Ellen Pompeo) history-breaking story.
Thanks to the magic of WarCor — and 2002's Crossroads and 1999's Introducing Dorothy Dandridge before it — television now has its singular most powerful force. The Greg Berlantis and Dick Wolfs and Kenya Barrises of the world may have their fiefdoms, but no one has created a kingdom quiet like Rhimes and her Shondaland. You may not know it, but we’re poised for yet another game-changing revolution once Rhimes’ history-making Netflix deal bears fruit.
Netflix broke the internet in July 2017 by seemingly doing the impossible: luring TGIT queen Shonda Rhimes from her television home of nearly a decade and a half, ABC, with a multi-year, reportedly $150 million USD contract. The fate of iconic Alphabet Network series like Grey’s Anatomy, then-imminently ending Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murder hung in the balance until everyone involved confirmed the new Netflix agreement wouldn’t influence the lifespans of the superproducer's network staples.
It’s no surprise such panic ensued over the fates of those series, as each one is iconic in its own right. From the 2005 get-go, Grey’s changed what viewers expected to see from leading characters and leading women. As Fortune reports, Rhimes once said of ABC’s attitude during Grey's Anatomy's infancy, “I remember somebody saying to me, ‘I don’t know if America’s going to like a woman who has sex with a man the night before her first day of work as a surgeon.” And yet Rhimes persisted with her sexy premiere episode cold open, “because, well, that’s what was going to happen,” as she said.
I can’t wait to show everybody what a Shondaland show is that we make for the world.
Less than a decade later, Scandal and HTGAWM both proved the bankability and critical acclaim that could come with stories centred around Black women. Scandal was the first network series in just under 40 years to star a Black woman… and it became a ratings-smashing pop cultural phenomenon. By leading How To Get Away, Viola Davis became the first Black woman to ever win the Best Lead Actress In A Drama Emmy.
While these OG series laid the foundation of what was possible in 21st century women-led television, the Shondaland-Netflix shows are set to reveal the true bounds of Rhimes’ creativity. Remember, when the writer-producer-all around boss detailed her plans for Netflix domination to the New York Times in July 2018 she said, “Everybody thinks that there’s a ‘Shondaland show … No. There’s a Shondaland show that we made for ABC. Now I can’t wait to show everybody what a Shondaland show is that we make for the world.” (Shondaland declined to participate in this story.)
We now have a taste of what that kind of “world”-appealing show is. In that same Times article, Rhimes unveiled the first eight series she has percolating for her new streaming abode. The buzziest one is inspired by 2018’s Summer Of Scam flagship scandal: the tale of Anna Delvey, New York’s newly infamous scammer. If ABC was worried a genius doctor with a penchant for one-night stands might be too risqué for television, imagine what they would have thought about a manipulative 20something of suspicious origins allegedly scamming the glitterati of New York City and beyond. Jennifer Lawrence and Margot Robbie are both rumoured to be interested in the project.
Although Shondaland’s still-untitled Delvey project is her most talked about Netflix project right now, the other seven may prove to be even more headline-making. Sunshine Scouts promises to continue the streaming giant’s history of lovable teen dystopian series. The half-hour comedy — yes Rhimes and producing partner Betsy Beers can do comedy — follows a group of foul-mouthed, sleepaway camp-bound teen girls trying to survive the apocalypse. Considering Rhimes’ years-long dedication to colourblind casting, Sunshine Scouts is likely due for the kind of inclusive core cast fellow end-of-the-world projects like The Hunger Games and Divergent could not give us.
Though Scouts will likely feature cast members of all colours, three of Rhimes’ upcoming projects will purposefully be lead by women characters of colour. Shondaland plans to adapt Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, the 2017 memoir of Ellen Pao, an Asian-American tech powerhouse whose gender discrimination suit changed Silicon Valley forever. Documentary Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, about Grey’s multi-hyphenate Debbie Allen’s award-winning, inclusive take on The Nutcracker, is driven by wildly talented Black and brown faces. Pick & Sepulveda will take place in 1840s California — when the area was still a Mexican state — and Rhimes’ adaptation of 2010 epic The Warmth of Other Suns will follow the 20th century migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow South across America.
When we recognize the sheer breadth of stories Rhimes plans to help birth into the world, you realize her success story is about more than the importance of a Black woman breaking TV barrier after TV barrier (which has been reported for nearly 15 years). It's about which stories the world over gets to hear — and which voices are given a megaphone — for the very first time when those ceilings come crashing down.
In 2014, Rhimes told The L.A. Times, “It'd be nice to feel like we weren't constantly having every discussion from the perspective of a white male. 'Cause that's what that is. ... I don't know when that's going to stop. But it'd be nice for it to stop at some point.” With the dawn of her Netflix empire, we’ve arrived.