For decades, television held the period drama to the rule of three Ms: make it love-shy, make it British, make it unapologetically white. Anything that fell short of this standard risked never making it to air.
When Netflix announced plans to develop a one-hour show based on the Bridgerton novel series in 2018, they appeared to have it all wrong. Not only was bestselling author Julia Quinn – a New Englander! – playing Jane Austen and spilling sex all over the page, but her adaptation would feature a multiracial cast. It had all the ingredients of a giant flop, and might well have been if someone other than Shonda Rhimes had been stirring the pot.
With Bridgerton’s second season premiering this Friday, viewers will be logging on to Netflix in droves to see if the series was indeed a worthy rival to Downton Abbey, or if it merely exploited our collective cabin fever during the pandemic. But if there’s reason to believe the series is more than a fleeting guilty pleasure, it’s because few showrunners have a better track record of spinning TV gold than Rhimes – the 52-year-old Chicago native who has ruled the small screen for the better part of the past two decades.
The hot streak has continued at Netflix – where her initial offerings have her reigning supreme. Not only has Bridgerton gone on to runaway success, zooming to No 1 in 76 countries, with a viewership of 82m households on the way to becoming the second-most watched series by total watch time on the platform. But Rhimes’s follow-up, Inventing Anna – about the soon-to-be deported SoHo grifter Anna Delvey – has proved to be a cultural phenomenon as well, seizing on the current scammer culture zeitgeist. Of course for those versed in Rhimes’s work, with its hot-mess characters and soaring monologues, doubtless none of this comes as a shock. If there’s one thing Rhimes knows how to make, it’s eminently binge-worthy TV.
Rhimes, of course, is the big brain behind Grey’s Anatomy, the soapy hospital drama that debuted on ABC as a mid-season replacement in 2005 only to become one of the longest-running scripted shows on American television. (In January, ABC renewed Grey’s for a 19th season.) The series minted the careers of Sandra Oh, Katherine Heigl and Jesse Williams; most incredibly, it established 52-year-old Ellen Pompeo – the titular Grey – as top earner in a medium that favours much younger up-and-comers. Grey’s even spawned two spin-offs: the firehouse-based Station 19 (renewed for a sixth season in January) and the medical office drama Private Practice, which enjoyed a six-season run before getting the axe in 2013.
But Rhimes was only just getting warmed up. After Grey’s she came out with Scandal, the Kerry Washington-led series based on a real-life DC politico; and How to Get Away with Murder, the fast-paced legal drama that won Viola Davis an Emmy. For years, Rhimes had ABC’s Thursday nights all to herself, with Grey’s, Scandal and Murder all airing the same evening. Altogether, she was creating at a pace that even the prolific actor and director Tyler Perry would struggle to keep up with, producing about 70 hours of television a year while banking in excess of $2bn for parent company Disney.
Despite her rainmaking, Rhimes was grossly underpaid at the network – a fact that became apparent during their negotiations for a multiyear extension in 2017. The final straw came when she asked a high-ranking executive for an extra all-inclusive pass to Disneyland. The alleged reply (“Don’t you have enough?”) all but sent her running to Netflix – where she’d be free of network TV’s tight shackles. That August, she signed on for a reported $150m – a bargain sum that does not include the lucrative streaming rights fees for the Grey’s, Scandal and Murder archives.
For the past decade Netflix has noisily gone about poaching top talent from its rivals, tossing juicy nine-figure lures at the Star Wars director JJ Abrams, Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and DB Weiss, and fellow Disney macher Kenya Barris; in 2018, the streaming service reeled in the Fox hitmaker Ryan Murphy for a reported $300m that put Netflix on the hook to take whatever he decides to bring to them. The deal was described as “as close to absolute freedom as anyone is likely to get without owning the studio or being Christopher Nolan”.
To date Murphy appears to be saving his best stuff for television. While his American Crime Story and American Horror Story franchises continue to create buzz for Fox and the recently cancelled ball culture drama Pose at least drew critical acclaim, Murphy’s Netflix offerings have mostly been thin soup. The Politician, about student government, is a watered-down remix of the 1999 Reese Witherspoon classic Election. His show Hollywood plays a bit too fast and loose with the facts while following a group of fictional aspirants through the industry’s postwar golden age. Halston, a focused retrospective on the life of the fabled clothing designer, was panned as overly glib.
Only Ratched, which was viewed by 48 million people during its first four weeks according to Netflix, could credibly be called a Murphy hit for the streaming service – and it was no doubt boosted by Miloš Forman’s source material and the lead performances of Emmy winners Sarah Paulson and Cynthia Nixon. Murphy’s other Netflix projects were just as loaded with star power; Gwyneth Paltrow stars in The Politician, Jim Parsons is a central figure in Hollywood and Ewan McGregor won an Emmy playing Halston. And yet these series come and go without really leaving viewers wanting.
Meanwhile, Rhimes repaid Netflix’s investment in her from the start. After debuting on Christmas 2020, Bridgerton became the most-watched series on Netflix even as it forced young adults into the uncomfortable position of having to watch sex scenes with their parents. This Is An Official Warning – Do Not Watch “Bridgerton” With Your Parents, advised BuzzFeed last January.
It made a superstar out of Regé-Jean Page, now an odds-on favourite to replace Daniel Craig as the next Bond. Julia Garner is in the midst of a similarly sudden star turn on Inventing Anna. The out-of-the-box success is as much a credit to Rhimes’s eye for pulpy stories as her confidence to let others bring those stories to screen – with Shondaland alum Chris Van Dusen taking the reins on Bridgerton.
For all her success Rhimes has been candid about how much she envies Murphy and the confidence with which he inhabits his Hollywood showrunner persona. But it’s clear Netflix values the understated self-possession that undergirds Rhimes’s near faultless track record. Last July she agreed to a multiyear extension with the streamer (bringing her more in line with Murphy) to provide feature films, gaming content and other offerings. Another producer might be scared to stray outside their lane and risk the possibility of crashing and burning. But Rhimes clearly does her best work when she pushes the limits.