Staying at home with her infant daughter, screenwriter Shonda Rhimes discovered pretty quickly that there were basically two things to do: change diapers and watch television. And watch she did--day and night, she confesses. But she found the females on TV a boring bunch. "They seemed to exist purely in relation to the men in their lives," she says. "Women I knew were competitive and a little snarky and had their share of bad days. There wasn't a show out there about women who seemed like them."
So with her daughter Harper on her lap, she hammered out the first episode of Grey's Anatomy, a medical drama about three female and two male surgical interns in a fictional Seattle hospital. She stocked her pilot with the kind of complex, ambitious, clever, confused women she knew. And the guys? Actually, she didn't want them to be so very real. "They were my fantasy men," says Rhimes of Drs. Burke (Isaiah Washington) and Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), two more senior surgeons. "They got to say and do things that I wish men would say and do."
Even as she put the finishing touches on the May 15 season finale of Grey's Anatomy, Rhimes, 36, found it hard to believe that her first shot at a prime-time drama has turned into such a monster hit for ABC, consistently ranking among the top five prime-time shows. Almost 20 million viewers--two-thirds of them women--tune in each week, according to Nielsen Media Research. The show has even contributed a word to the lexicon: McDreamy, as in Dr. McDreamy, the nickname of tousle-haired heartthrob Dr. Shepherd.
Grey's success has catapulted its creator into the exclusive club of TV drama kings alongside J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias), Jerry Bruckheimer (CSI) and Dick Wolf (Law & Order). Rhimes--the first African-American woman to create and executive-produce a top-10 network series--signed a lucrative development deal last month with Touchstone Television, which also produces Grey's, to resurrect an old project, a series about female news correspondents.
More than half the characters on Grey's Anatomy are African American or female, although Rhimes insists she didn't write race into it at all. Her script for the pilot had no physical descriptions other than gender. But it came naturally to her to cast that way. "Shonda sees the world through the eyes of human beings. That's the bottom line," says Washington, who says his role as the brilliant surgeon has finally allowed him to break away from playing so many stereotypical thug roles. "Her characterizations are definitely her strong suit," says ABC Entertainment chief Stephen McPherson, "and characters are what drive great television." As for race, the show never approaches it head on, except sometimes to flip expectations on their head. Three of the top doctors are black, and the character who had the toughest childhood is white.