When Olivia Pope chose to get an abortion on Scandal, Shonda Rhimes was bracing for a firestorm. But after the episode aired in November, the showrunner realized she’d overestimated the public’s reaction.
“When that episode came out, I thought the reaction was going to be so much stronger… which is always awesome when it’s not,” Rhimes explained Sunday at the Vulture Festival in New York City. “Because the fans are always much more enlightened than, you know, the studio lawyers are.”
Rhimes brought up the episode — a statement about the defunding of Planned Parenthood — after being asked if the varying fan responses to her show’s twists and turns surprise her.
“I don’t think I’m ever shocked. No, I’m not,” Rhimes said. “It’s interesting. I’m usually expecting worse. When Olivia had an abortion and left the White House, we used Aretha Franklin’s ‘Silent Night,’ which is beautiful, to play [during] her abortion.”
In fact, Rhimes was more concerned about Franklin’s perception of the scene than the public’s.
“And I had been very stressed out about that in general, about using that song,” she said. “I had gone back to Aretha’s people like five times. ‘Did Aretha see the scene? Did she see it? Did she know what was being shown?’ The last thing I wanted was for Aretha Franklin to have seen the scene later on television and be like, ‘You’re never using one of my songs again.’ Finally, I got this note back that said, ‘Please stop asking. Aretha’s seen the scene and she’s fine.'”
In addition to touching on Kerry Washington’s powerful moment on Sunday, Rhimes addressed Sara Ramirez’s exit from Grey’s Anatomy, saying it wasn’t “wasn’t a big, planned thing.” Keep reading for more revelations from the chat.
Scandal‘s darkest days might be in the past.
After a turbulent five seasons of, clearer skies await Olivia Pope. Rhimes dropped the tease while explaining how her positive perspective on life — as explored in her book, Year of Yes — bleeds into her work.
“I don’t know if you all will notice this — because Olivia beats people to death with chairs and stuff — but I feel like I can see it: There’s an optimism that exists in the work now,” said Rhimes. “I think it’s especially true in Grey’s [Anatomy].”
She continued: “On Grey’s, there’s definitely a sense of optimism. And on Scandal, we’re heading some place that’s optimistic.”
Fans will have to wait until 2017 to discover exactly what Rhimes and her team of writers have in mind for Olivia and co. — as announced at ABC’s Upfronts presentation last week, the show has been moved to midseason in the wake of Kerry Washington’s pregnancy news.
Fitz and Rhimes have Vermont in common.
Imagine a world in which Rhimes doesn’t run an empire responsible for five ABC shows — Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, The Catch, How to Get Away With Murder, and the latest addition coming this fall, Still Star-Crossed. How would Rhimes spend her time? Surprisingly, her life would be similar to what Scandal‘s President Fitzgerald Grant might do after his second term ends.
“Okay, here’s where I’m going to embarrass myself, but I want to make jam in Vermont,” she said, making the audience erupt in laughter. “I’d catch up on all my shows, read my books.”
Rhimes has a sassy reply for questions about her female characters.
“I get asked this question so much: ‘How do you create such smart, strong women?'” Rhimes said. “And I’m like, ‘Is the alternative weak, stupid women?’ I don’t understand the question. Like, it’s not a goal. They’re just people. Women are strong. I literally don’t understand the question when I’m asked it. I don’t know how to write people any other way than being the people that they are, like women that I know. So it’s not a goal — it’s just reality.”
She suspects a TV bubble is on the horizon.
“To me, it feels like we’re on this very interesting frontier,” Rhimes said of the ever-evolving TV business. “There might be a weird peak and bubble. There are so many programs out there now. I think 10 years ago, five years ago, there were like 40 dramas and now there are like 357 dramas. That’s all the different mediums, and that’s crazy. Everything’s much more specific to a different audience, a specific audience — you can find your show. And you have to find it. It could be on your phone — there’s all these different places. So that’s a little interesting.” Rhimes continued: “There’s a bubble that might burst at some point, at the tipping point. But even that, I’m intrigued to see what that means and what that will bring. I don’t approach any of it with fear because there’s no point. It’s something I can’t control. And I’m very good about not worrying about things I can’t control.”