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TV's Promiscuous Bitches

UP-FRONT WEEK IS WHEN THE NETWORKS unveil their fall TV schedules to advertisers at fancy New York City venues, then attempt to mask the stink of failure at even more lavish parties in even fancier venues. In other words, it’s all a big con. The alphabets pretend that they still have an audience, and advertisers feign that they don’t have other media options. Meanwhile, a new poll finds that almost 80 percent of 16- to 18-year-olds can’t name the big-four broadcasters and prefer the Web to TV anyway.

The biggest news from this week’s up-front (if you don’t count the inexplicable trend of casting geriatric actors like John Lithgow and James Woods in picked-up, picked-over pilots) is ABC’s big gamble: yanking Grey’s Anatomy out of its Desperate Housewives–protected Sunday-night time slot and moving it to Thursday nights at 9 p.m. That means CBS’s CSI juggernaut and NBC’s “Mustn’t See” comedy block will do battle on what may soon be regarded as the bloodiest night of TV week. But to understand how truly screwed up the network development process is, chew on this: Megahit Grey’s Anatomy almost didn’t make it on air. Creator–executive producer–head writer Shonda Rhimes told me in a recent interview that she and parent company Disney and Disney’s Touchstone TV arm “had some hard times. I’m not even going to pretend that we didn’t. There was a while when we didn’t have a time slot. There was a while when we didn’t know when we were going to air. We were making shows in a void because we were a midseason replacement.”

The main sticking point to putting G.A. on the schedule was Rhimes’ promiscuous bitches. Because if Desperate Housewives is a TV phenomenon, then Grey’s Anatomy is a TV freak of nature due to its woman characters. They’re bad, bad female brainiac surgeons who do bad, bad things to the people around them, especially to men who thrill at the way these women’s wardrobe malfunctions steam up hospital supply closets — the FCC’s decency hang-ups be damned.

“In the beginning, even before we made the pilot, some executive would write this sentence in the script every once in a while: ‘Can the women be nicer?’ Those people aren’t at the network now,” recalls Rhimes, a Chicago native and single mom in her early 30s who graduated from USC film school. “My answer was always, ‘No, that’s who they are.’?”

L.A. WEEKLY:What do you think is the show’s most controversial opinion or attitude?

SHONDA RHIMES: It’s interesting to write a show where our lead character unapologetically has sex however and whenever and with whomever she wants it. And it’s been interesting to have a lead character whose method of dealing with having a bad day is to go into a bar, get drunk, pick up a gorgeous guy, bring him home and then throw him out in the morning. That feels like women I know. It feels like the world that we live in. And yet I’m constantly being asked the question, “Why is she so promiscuous?” We started our pilot out that way, and I remember being asked, “Are you sure you want to do that?” “Is that the kind of thing a woman would do?” “Other women aren’t going to like that.” But women actually found it very empowering.

Do you worry when you’re writing sex scenes about the FCC’s decency crackdown?

No. I was a huge fan of Sex and the City and Six Feet Under. But we are on network television. There are standards and practices. What’s fun is finding a way to tell the same story that we want to tell without being indecent, and yet still being indecent. It forces you to be more creative.

Why is it so important that women on TV be “nice”?

I think there’s a fear of not-nice women. I think our characters are always very nice and they’re all caring. But they’re also selfish and they’re also competitive and they also have bad days and they also do bad things and they’re also all flawed. What I like about that is it gives you some place to go. It’s very hard to deal with somebody who’s nothing but nice.

Would the world be a better place if women didn’t have this pressure to be nice?

Being liked and being nice and being non-threatening seem to be the three most important qualities for women. If we just got over it and let the men be threatened and see that we weren’t nice and experience that we weren’t necessarily all likable, I don’t think we would be worried about a woman’s place in the world the way we are.

You’re raising a girl. What kind of values or attitudes do you want to instill in her about being a woman?

To grow up fearless. No, I think it’s to grow up unapologetic. Like there’s no reason to apologize for being a woman in this world — for either its best parts or its worst parts. You don’t apologize for loving shoes, you don’t apologize for crying when you’re mad, you don’t apologize for being tough, you don’t apologize for beating someone out in a competition. Just being unapologetic.

Are you the first African-American woman to run a prime-time network series?

We think so, but we don’t know. I’m pretty sure about this: We’re the only network drama that has a writing staff that is more than 50 percent women.

How do men write women?

I do think you watch TV and you feel like the women are written as a man would like them to be, as opposed to how they are. That sometimes there can be a lack of complexity: Either you’re a saint or you’re a whore, either you’re good or you’re bad, as opposed to getting to be extremely competitive and extremely selfish, but also extraordinarily kind. That’s what I don’t see very often with a lot of woman characters. You’re either just the love interest that somebody’s pining for, or you’re the villain who’s making someone’s life a living hell. But honestly, on our show the men are written as how I’d like them to be as opposed to how they are, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

What were you looking for when you chose the writers?

I wanted to read their original writing samples as opposed to their spec writing samples. And then, really, it was about hiring people who I liked. You want people who were interesting enough to want to sit in the room with and debate the fate of these 10 characters on our show for a year, at the very least.

You’ve talked before about the mantra in the writers’ room being no characters who do personal confessions.

I say “no hugging, no crying, no secret pain.” What’s funny now is, literally, we have “approved” crying. People come and say, “I really need this character to cry. Is it okay?”

What’s the difference between your show and ER?

Our show is retro the way it works. Our show is how our doctors feel about the patients. And, frankly, not even about the patients, but how the doctors feel about their own things while stuff is happening to the patients. I always say this is not a medical show. This is a relationship show with some surgeries thrown in for good fun.

You never had to live in your car. You had success almost from the start, didn’t you?

It always sounds easier than it was, probably. No, I would probably be the first to admit that I did not struggle. I don’t know why that is. Part of it is that I am extremely naive. Which means, in a weird way, that I just blindly pushed forward despite any obstacles that were put in my way. I just thought, “What’s the worst that can happen?” I believe things generally tend to work out. If you are looking for problems, they generally appear. Whereas if you’re not looking for them, you might trip over them and keep on going.

Do you have an example of you being über-naive?

I did not even realize for the first six months of the entire show that I could fire any of my writers if I didn’t like them. Honestly. I liked them tremendously, so it never would have occurred to me. I just thought they were all family and were going to be with us for the duration. But then somebody asked me how everyone was working out like that. I went, “Really? We can fire them?” It seemed shocking to me.