In Shondaland, life is always busy and sometimes controversial

When you go to ABC on Thursdays, you're stepping into Shondaland. All three shows -- "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and the new "How to Get Away with Murder" -- are produced by Shonda Rhimes and have key things in common. But does that make Rhimes a dictator, in the manner of some of her characters? That question bubbled up anew this week and I had a chance to ask about it this summer. Here's the story I sent to papers today:


Just so we’re clear on this, Shonda Rhimes is not,
apparently, an angry black woman. Any similarity to Annalise Keating, the
powerhouse character in her new show, is slight and coincidental.

That question came up this week, after a New York Times
piece tried to praise Rhimes and her “How to Get Away with Murder.” The result
drew complaints and apologies.

But the question also came up in July, when she met the Television
Critics Association. We asked her then if Keating – very much in control,
ruling the room – felt autobiographical. “I didn’t write it and so it’s not
about me,” Rhimes said. “She’s not like me at all.”

Would she like to be like Keating? “I find her … a
fascinating, interesting character who’s writ incredibly complex … There are
aspects of her that we all wish we could be like,” Rhimes said.

What about the younger “Murder” co-stars? On the show, they
play new law students intimidated by Keating, their professor; do they find
Rhimes or Davis intimidating?

“Definitely,” said Karla Souza. “They demand a presence when
they walk in the room. And it’s invigorating to feel on your toes all the time ….
They’re people we obviously admire a lot.”

Rhimes is, after all, not your usual TV producer. She has an
entire night of scripted TV dramas – something that apparently hasn’t happened
since Aaron Spelling in the early 1980s.

It’s easy to envision her as a domineering auteur, molding
everything under her “Shondaland” production banner. Those shows have similar strengths
(vivid dialog, strong visuals and music, award-winning diversity) and flaws
(plot twists that sometimes spin wildly into soap/telenovela turf).

So it’s simple to imagine Rhimes as a real-life Keating or
Bailey (“Grey’s Anatomy”) or Pope (“Scandal”). In the Times piece, Alessandra
Stanley praised her, saying she took “the trite but persistent caricature of
the angry black woman, recast it in her own image, and made it enviable.” She
also opened by suggesting that Rhimes’ autobiography be “How to Get Away with
Being an Angry Black Woman.”

That drew the complaints and the Times apologies.

Certainly, TV has had its auteurs. There were seasons when
Aaron Sorkin and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason each wrote all 22 episodes of “The
West Wing” and “Designing Women,” respectively.

But auteurs usually only do one show; the notion of
producing several shows is better left to an easygoing delegator, in the
Spelling style. Rhimes created “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Scandal,”
but out of 437 episodes, she’s listed as the writer of only 41 and the director
of zero. She didn’t create “Murder”; that was done by Peter Nowalk, a
Shondaland producer-writer.

“Putting normal people in extreme circumstances (is) very
appealing,” Nowalk said. “What’s more extreme than being a first-year law
student who’s kind of innocent and naïve and thrust into a murder?”

Then he created a role strong enough to lure Oscar-nominee
Viola Davis. Her movie roles, she said, are “like being invited to a really
fabulous party, only to hold up the wall. I wanted to be the show.”

“How to Get Away with Murder,” 10 p.m.
Thursdays, ABC; debuts Sept. 25

In a new-ish world, "Black-ish" captures life's fun-ish questions

There are wise minds -- none of them mine -- that consider "Black-ish" TV's next big thing. A poll of the Television Critics Association chose it as this fall's most promising new comedy. I have some others above it -- "Selfies," "A to Z," "The McCarthys" -- but I agree that "Black-ish" is an interesting show to watch and to think about. It arrives Wednesday (Sept. 24, just after "Modern Family") on ABC; here's the story I sent to papers:


This is supposed to be a goal in life: You move up, giving
your kids a better world than you knew.

Then you start to wonder what you’ve skipped. “My son was 12
(when) he said, ‘Dad, I don’t feel black,’” recalled Anthony Anderson, star of
ABC’s new “Black-ish.”

So Anderson chatted about his own struggle to give his
family more; his son said he understood. “And then, in the same breath, he
said, ‘OK, Dad. For my 13
th birthday, I want a bar mitzvah’ …. I
told him, ‘I will throw you a hip hop bro mitzvah.’”

That sets the mood for “Black-ish,” which faces the
reactions to a changing world. Just ask:

Kenya Barris, the show’s writer. “My wife’s a
doctor,” he said. “She’ll come home and … I’ll say, ‘I’m hungry.’ And she’ll go,
‘Me, too.’”  

Tracee Ellis Ross, who co-stars as Anderson’s
wife, an anesthesiologist; in real life, she’s the result of upward mobility. A
generation ago, sisters grew up in a Detroit housing project. One (Tracee’s
aunt) became a doctor and the first black female to be dean of a med school; the
other (Tracee’s mom) is Diana Ross, mega-star.

Larry Wilmore. At 52, he finds himself in high
demand – as a “Black-ish” producer-writer, a “Daily Show” correspondent and the
anchor of the show (“The Minority Report”) that will follow “The Daily Show”
when Stephen Colbert leaves.

And Anderson, an expert on upward mobility. “I
grew up in the hood, in Compton, California,” he said. “And the existence that
my son knows is nothing short of privilege, being in private school since the
age of 4.”

For any ethnic group that assimilates or anyone who shifts
financial brackets, Barris said, there are adjustments. He remembers his
daughter going to great lengths to explain which classmate she was talking
about. “I was like, ‘Hold on. Do you mean the only other little black girl in
your class?’ And she was like, ‘I guess so.’”

In the new world, racial identities shift and words get
tricky. Still, it sometimes works out; Anderson said his son’s party was fine.
“His Jewish friend said that was the best bar mitzvah they’ve been to.”

“Black-ish,” 9:31 p.m. Wednesdays (after “Modern
Family”), ABC.

Debuts Sept. 24; the opener will rerun at 9:30
p.m. Friday (Sept. 26) on ABC Family.