Shonda Rhimes on 'Grey's Anatomy's' Future, Split Seasons, Lesbian Divorce
The showrunner also talks with THR about the upcoming "momentous" 200th episode.
When Grey's Anatomy returns for its 10th season in September, the ABC medical drama will be inching toward what showrunner Shonda Rhimes described as a "momentous" 200th episode.
While that milestone may serve as a reminder that the clock on the show's shelf life may be winding down, the prolific producer doesn't see the network's No. 1 drama wrapping up any time soon. Instead, Rhimes tells THR that her third-year drama Scandal -- a breakout hit in its Twitter-fueled sophomore season -- has helped reinvigorate the ensemble drama starring Patrick Dempsey, Ellen Pompeo and Sandra Oh.
The Hollywood Reporter catches up with Rhimes at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour to discuss Grey's Anatomy's future, her approach to the season 10's split run, the 200th episode and whether she'd ever consider featuring a lesbian divorce story.
The Hollywood Reporter: ABC's Paul Lee said he'd like to see Grey's continue for as long as you'd like it to. How long would you like it to run?
Shonda Rhimes: I would like to continue Grey's for as long as I continue to have some story that I can come up with to tell. I feel like when it's time to step away and be done is when somebody else has taken over and I can't do this anymore. That's the time to step away. I don't want everyone to say, "It was great until …" or "I loved it until and it doesn't feel the same." To me, it's letting the characters evolve and telling really interesting stories.
THR: How has Scandal helped reinvigorate Grey's?
Rhimes: I don't know that one thing influences the other, in a weird way. What's nice is that they're such different worlds. With Private Practice, which I loved writing, the first couple seasons were hard because I felt like I was in the same world, and it was about figuring out how to make it a different world. Scandal is such a different world that it doesn't have anything to do with Grey's. I liken it to this: I have a 10-year-old and almost 2-year-old child at home. At work, I have a 10-year-old and a just 2-year-old. You get to do things differently with the younger child, and you get reinvigorated because you need to exercise a completely different muscle, and that makes you stronger. But it's not about one being better than the other or being helpful. It's about getting a whole new experience.
THR: Both Grey's and Scandal are doing split-run seasons. How are you approaching both runs differently because of the format?
Rhimes: I'm not approaching them differently. Last year, I asked for us to have a split-run. I really wanted us to have a split run. For Grey's, we literally said, "We're going to split the season into two" last year and we're going to pretend we have season 9A and season 9B, and we're not going to think of 9B until we're done with 9A, which is how you do a whole season anyway. For Scandal, we did the same thing. We did 13 episodes and then we're going to figure out the back nine. This year, what's nice is that we know that that can also happen, and it's going to happen consecutively, without reruns which is very exciting. We're going to do the first 10 of Scandal and then the back 12 of Scandal. We're going to do 12 and 12 with Grey's, and it's going to be great to tell a story the way it makes sense to tell a story.
THR: Will both the midseason finale and the actual season finale have the same intensity that they did on both shows last year?
Rhimes: Absolutely. With Grey's, up until last season, we were always saying let's work to the 24th episode. But with Scandal, we said we were going to work toward the 13th episode and figure the rest of it out. This season, I've only pitched to episode 10 [of Scandal] and we're going to figure the rest out when we get there.
THR: For Grey's Anatomy, do you have the end of 12 and 24 in mind?
Rhimes: I know the end of 12; 24 I don't know, and that provides me with a lot more relief and security. When we were doing season eight and I didn't know it was going to end -- I didn't know who was going to stay and who was going to go -- it was really difficult to plan all those episodes. Now I plan to episode 12 and we have a [midseason] finale, and then we're going to figure out the end of the season. It's a lot better.
THR: The 200th episode is coming up early in season 10. Are you going big for the episode?
Rhimes: I don't know how many shows have gotten to 200 episodes; it's really rare. When we did the 100th, I thought it had to be super special. One of the things I want to do in our 200th is show how our interns have grown up; 200 episodes later, they're all badass surgeons, which is really huge. It's also just about remembering how great everybody is. I like to have people in black-tie, because that's always nice. We have a story that we're telling that I feel really good about. I feel excited about it. It feels momentous for us.
THR: Callie (Sara Ramirez) has now been cheated on a second time. How will her response be different this time than it was with George (T.R. Knight)?
Rhimes: It's not necessarily how it's different but how this time is influenced by the fact that she's been cheated on before by a spouse. That's the big deal. It's one thing to be cheated on by a spouse once, it's another thing to have it happen a second time. How does the first time affect you? We're going to get to see a very interesting journey for both women. I'm excited about it. I feel like one of two things will happen: They'll end up getting back together and we'll see this journey and watch them fight through it, or they won't and we'll get to see what happens when there's more than one major lesbian relationship on a big television show.
THR: We haven't really seen a lesbian divorce story on TV before. Is that something that's appealing to you?
Rhimes: It's not necessarily about what we've seen. We let all the other characters on Grey's Anatomy go through everything. It puts Callie and Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) in a lesbian ghetto the way it does when there's a black character on TV and they always have to be good and can't do anything wrong. It puts them into a lesbian ghetto if they can only be happy and perfectly married. Let's let them be complex. Let's let them have the same three-dimensional story lines that every other character on television has. Let's let people root for them to get back together or root for them to grow apart. Let's let them have everything that everybody else has; why do they have to be perfect?
THR: Could Hilarie Burton return?
Rhimes: Right now we don't have anything planned, but I love Hilarie Burton. There's no reason to say she's not going to return if we can make that work. In the episodes we've told, she's not there. But we might see her again.
THR: What kind of journey will Meredith (Pompeo) and Derek (Dempsey) have this season? Dempsey noted that Derek would be exploring brain mapping. How will that affect them as parents?
Rhimes:There's going to be a lot of that. There's going to be a bit of competition for the two of them. Meredith has two children now, and it's the first time they've had a newborn, so that's going to be very different for them as well. Their relationship is in a good place, but it's going to hit a complex place because who is going to step pack to pick up all the slack that comes with having two small children? We're going to explore what that means.
Grey's Anatomy returns Sept. 26 at 9 p.m. Hit the comments below with what you're looking forward to seeing.