'Grey's' takes a scalpel to standard procedure

Times Staff Writer

Say you were pitching a television show about a group of writers working on ... a television show. Why not? Plenty of tension and dramatic potential -- clash of egos, on-set romance, big chance for failure. Not to mention the opportunity for some very snappy dialogue. Think "Sports Night" meets "The Dick Van Dyke Show," think "West Wing" but with groovier clothes and more Hollywood gossip.

At the heart you would want a young show runner, preferably a woman and first-timer to give you your basic "fish out of water" dramatic template. She'd need a stalwart supporter -- a TV veteran who can teach her the ropes, give the occasional kindly lecture about how life actually works in this town.

And then there would be the ensemble -- a disparate assortment of writers whose inter-personal exchanges would fuel the plotline, which boils down to: Can a hastily assembled group of complete strangers produce a midseason medical drama with numbers good enough to prove that the Hollywood dream machine is still up and running?

The answer, of course, is "yes." And if the creative team behind "Grey's Anatomy" weren't so busy producing a hit show, they could just star in one.

At the center would be Shonda Rhimes, an African American Dartmouth-educated screenwriter and single mother. Her demographics make her remarkable enough -- female show runners may not be as rare as they once were, but you can count on one hand those who are women of color. And then there's the attitude.

A sign on her office door reads: "Princesses Welcome. Complainers Banned." Which pretty much says it all.

"I absolutely believe in the 'no [jerks] rule,' " she says. "I did not want to work with someone I did not like as a human being. I used the rule in casting and I used the rule in hiring writers, and you know, it really works for me."

ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" follows a group of doctors through their first-year surgical residency at a Seattle hospital. At its heart is Meredith Grey, a prickly, independent sort whose ambition, and ambivalence, is fueled by the fact that her mother was a gifted surgeon and now suffers from Alzheimer's.

Much more a personal drama than medical drama, with surprisingly complex characters, the show instantly established a large audience. From the enviable slot behind "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy" debuted midseason with 21 million viewers, a number that has increased.

"I wanted to create a show that I wanted to watch," says Rhimes. "I wanted it to be about women, about competitive women who were like me and my friends.

"The guys [on the writing staff] will groan sometimes," she adds, "and say, 'Oh, man, that is such a chick moment.' And I say, 'Those moments are why I watch television. So it stays.' "

Rhimes is still in shock over the show's success, for which she credits the writing team and the cast, and the fact that when the pilot got picked up she had no idea how to run a television show. So beyond her one hiring rule, she had few other guidelines.

"I had never written a television show before," she says. "So I wrote a pilot with 97 scenes. I didn't know you couldn't do that. And as it turns out, you can. Why not?"

Likewise, after some people seemed shocked that she would introduce her lead character as a woman emerging grouchily from a one-night stand, Rhimes just shrugged. "I was very surprised," she said. "I mean, how many episodes of 'Sex and the City' do you have to watch?"

When she was hiring writers, it never occurred to her that she shouldn't hire more women than men, so she did -- only three of the 10 writers are men, and one of them is part of a married-couple writing team. "People kept saying how strange that was," Rhimes says. "But men hire men because they're more comfortable with them. So maybe I'll help even things out."

And she certainly didn't understand why everyone the casting directors originally sent her was white. Rhimes suggested Ellen Pompeo, whom she had admired in "Moonlight Mile," for Meredith Grey, but she quickly made it clear she wanted to see actors of every color for every role. "They sent me all these white actors and I was like, 'Are you kidding?' " she says. "The only role written with race in mind was [Miranda] Bailey. I saw Bailey as tiny and adorable and blond because I thought it would be funny for the Nazi to be tiny and adorable and blond. But then I got the tape of Chandra Wilson [who is black], and there went that idea."

Sitting on the sofa of her office, Rhimes, like her show, is the embodiment of the dream that keeps apartment buildings in Koreatown and Eagle Rock filled with hopeful screen and television writers. After taking her English degree into advertising, Rhimes applied to USC film school almost on a whim: "I kept reading about how competitive it was and I'm pretty competitive." She graduated, sold her first spec script, and began working steadily as a screenwriter, with credits including "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," the Britney Spears vehicle "Crossroads" and "Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement."

When she decided to go into television, it went similarly -- she sold her first pilot, about a group of female war correspondents, to ABC, but when the war in Iraq broke out, the show was shelved. She had heard ABC was looking for a medical drama so she paired up with James D. Parriott, a 30-year veteran of television, who had been slated to work with Rhimes on the correspondents pilot, and created "Grey's Anatomy."

"People keep telling me it doesn't happen this way," Rhimes says, with a laugh and a shrug. "But this is the way it happened."

Savoring their success

Inside the conference room of a bungalow at Prospect Studios in Los Feliz, a grease board is festooned with an unusual list: Petting Zoo, Play Room, Razors for All, Working Fridge, In-House Masseuse, Ping Pong, Nursery, Swing Set.

"These were our demands," says writer Mimi Schmir. "This is what we decided we needed when we realized we were a hit."

The writer's room is a bit chilly and stale, like a school room during spring break -- the show shut down for the season while everyone took a little vacation, waiting to see if it would be picked up for the fall. (It was; 13 new episodes have been ordered.)

"Normally we'd all be going out three or four times a day trying to charm our way into a job," says Krista Vernoff. "Which is very hard because if you get the meeting it means they like your writing. So if you don't get the job it means they don't like you. Personally."

"And writers aren't usually known for their personalities," adds Schmir. "My husband is a writer, all my friends are writers, so spring is usually ... difficult."

"We're a husband and wife writing team," says Gabrielle Stanton, gesturing toward the husband half, Harry Werksman. "So we have the whole dog-and-pony show: How did you meet? How does that work?"

"We have all the anecdotes, we know when to pause," says Werksman.

"Wait for the laugh, wait for the laugh," cues Stanton.

"And the great thing about this year," finishes Vernoff, "is we don't have to do it."

This is not quite half of the writing team assembled by Rhimes and Parriott, but they are camera-ready -- Werksman with his earring and Lance Armstrong wristband, Schmir in her rectangular glasses, Vernoff's mini-poncho and constantly ringing cellphone. Parriott, who has worked on shows from "The Bionic Woman" to the recent "Threat Matrix," is on a speakerphone, calling in from his home in Hawaii.

The group speaks in a constant circle of conversation that is entertaining and also slightly exhausting. Clearly, these people write dialogue for a living, though it is difficult to imagine what it would be like with more than double the number and a deadline pressure -- perhaps this is why writers' rooms are, traditionally, as sacrosanct and press-free as an AA meeting.

To hear them tell it, the writing staff of "Grey's Anatomy" is way too happy and harmonious to sustain its own show.

"Other writers will completely think we are lying, but we're not," says Stanton.

With uncertainty and those 12-hour days a hazy memory, they are giddy with success and lavish with their praise -- for Rhimes' talent, Parriott's knowledge, the themes that guide each week's episode, the incredible cast and supporting staff of medical researchers.

They talk about how strange it is to work in a room that is mostly female and if maybe a Carol Gilligan-esque factor -- men compete, women commune -- is at work here.

"I am so used to being the only woman in the room," says Stanton. "I came in with a foul mouth and bad attitude because that is what I've needed and in one day I realized I didn't have to do that. Strange, but true."

Parriott and Werksman like the change as well, although there are many times, they say, when they are simply overruled. "So we have male characters doing things that we know for a fact no man would ever do," says Parriott with a laugh. "But that's OK. We let them have their Dr. McDreamy," he adds, referring to Patrick Dempsey's practically perfect attending surgeon.

But with many years, and many shows among them, the writers of "Grey's Anatomy" say it all comes down to that "no [jerks] policy." All of the writers of the first season were asked back for the second, says Parriott, adding that this is "very unusual."

"There is no 'identifiable problem' here," says Vernoff. "You know, the person who makes everything tense, who everyone talks about the minute he leaves the room. I mean," she adds, with a nervous laugh, "unless I'm that person and no one has told me."

"And Shonda actually likes television," says Stanton. "I cannot tell you how many shows I've worked on where the people don't even have cable because they don't like television. It's crazy."

There was, of course, a learning curve for everyone, especially Rhimes. "My experience of writing was you sit in a room alone and you write," she says. "You don't talk to anyone. You don't let anyone else touch your stuff."

So the idea of the writing room -- in which episodes are discussed and "broken" into scenes that one writer (or in the case of Stanton and Werksman, two) then turns into a script -- was a bit daunting.

"It is hard for writers who have a clear voice," says Schmir, "and Shonda has a very distinctive voice. Because it's our job to interpret that voice. And especially in the beginning, we're all learning. So the scripts aren't all going to sound the same, or sound like her."

Rhimes, says the staff, did not panic, as some show runners do.

She gives notes, reads revises, gives more notes and then the final polish. "The scripts all go through my computer at the end," says Rhimes. "To make sure the characters sound like my characters."

"Shonda's a natural," says Parriott. "A lot of writers have a hard time letting go or letting other writers have their shot. But Shonda has just taken to it."

This is the honeymoon period, of course. Bad things will happen because bad things always do. But for just this moment, the folks behind "Grey's Anatomy" are very, very happy. The show's a hit, they already have five episodes in the can, no one got fired. Only Vernoff might not return; she has her own pilot in the works right now.

In a town full of cancellations, cost-cutting and constant squabbles over salaries and credit, it's hard not to feel a little protective of this moment. This is the writer's equivalent of why the bus still stops at Hollywood and Vine -- sometimes, it all really does work out. For a while anyway.

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Contact Mary McNamara at Calendar.letters@latimes.com.

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