Grey Co. goes private
To spend time with Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, the executive producers who run “Grey’s Anatomy” and its spinoff, “Private Practice,” is to be introduced to their linguistic particularities.
There is, for example, “Grey Co.,” the term they’ve devised to describe the tonnage of work that goes into overseeing the production, merchandising and musical supervision of “Grey’s Anatomy,” the immensely successful ABC drama-soap. Those duties belong to Beers, who has a background in film, as opposed to Rhimes, the primary writer and creator of both “Grey’s” and “Private Practice.”
Also in common conversational usage is “the bubble,” the place Rhimes and Beers disappear into in order to get everything done, and “the family” -- the actors, writers, production people and staff who also live in the bubble. They are also attuned to language mistakes made by people from outside the bubble. The controversial actor Isaiah Washington was not “fired” for homophobic utterances, they “chose not to renew his contract,” Rhimes said.
And as for the common perception that the pilot episode of “Private Practice,” revolving around Dr. Addison Montgomery (played by Kate Walsh) and her move to Santa Monica, was embedded within a two-hour episode of “Grey’s” last May, that is not correct.
“It was evaluated as a pilot,” Beers said recently over lunch. “When it wasn’t really a pilot.”
“I always bristle when people say it was a pilot,” Rhimes added. “I’m like, ‘No, it was an episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ I feel like no one’s ever seen ‘Private Practice.’ They will.”
In fact, they will tonight (ABC, 9 p.m.). Because it has sprung from “Grey’s,” “Private Practice” is one of the most highly anticipated shows of the new season. It also bears an exceptional burden because of the culturally influential way that “Grey’s” is popular. Off-screen, the soapy hospital show has made outsized stars of its cast -- including Walsh -- who have charmed audiences on-screen with their repetitious speech patterns and catchphrases (e.g., “seriously,” “whatever” and the “Mc-" prefix).
The two show runners’ work has doubled. “The idea is to be able to create an atmosphere in which I can free her up,” Beers said, “so that she can do what is absolutely necessary in these situations in which she is, literally, the only person who can do it.” With the new show, that means, Rhimes said: “Everything with ‘Private’ is in my head. I have to find a way to communicate that to the writers.”
The “Private Practice” episode viewers will see tonight is quite different from what 21.2 million of them watched in May. That episode cut back and forth between the action at Seattle Grace Hospital, where dark arcs were nearing their season-long conclusion, and the slapstick-y doings at the colorful Oceanside Wellness Group, where Addison went on vacation to visit her old medical school friends. Critics largely bashed it; many fans expressed horror.
“I did not like the Addison thing AT all,” wrote one participant at greyswriters.com, where Rhimes and the other writers blog their episodes. “Bring her back to Seattle and do not pursue that as a show PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE.”
Rhimes said she reads every posting. “I don’t want to say that I take what the people say and directly apply it to the show,” she said. “But I do read everything and take it in. You know what I mean?”
Stephen McPherson, president, ABC Entertainment, said he thought the two-hour “Grey’s"/"Private Practice” pilot/whatever ended up being “a lot of exposition and not enough story.” It introduced six new characters, played by familiar faces such as Taye Diggs, Amy Brenneman and Tim Daly and quickly tried to outline them. “I think we jumped in a little bit too aggressively,” McPherson said.
In tonight’s episode, Addison seems less wacky and more like the strong, sarcastic Addison from “Grey’s”; Merrin Dungey is out as Naomi, her best friend, and Audra McDonald is in. (“Four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald,” Rhimes said.)
Tinkering with “Private Practice” in public was their unique problem. Many pilots are recast, reshot and sometimes reconceived entirely, but it happens in relative privacy, since so few people have seen the original. Did they feel limited in what changes they could make? “I think we asked ourselves that question,” Rhimes said. “And the answer had to be no. If this is going to be a separate show, it had to be the best show possible.”
Looking at how they’ve run “Grey’s,” McPherson said he has faith. “I think they’re so demanding of themselves from a creative standpoint -- story and character -- that they’re never going to sit there and, you know, bask in the limelight of it all,” he said.
Rhimes and Beers met five years ago, when Rhimes was a screenwriter looking to get into TV, and Beers was president of production at Mark Gordon Co. Rhimes made the rounds, talking to production companies. “This is going to sound wrong, because they were all very nice,” she said with a laugh. “I only really liked Betsy and Mark.”
Rhimes was late for their first meeting. “They both looked at me, and they were like, ‘You’re late.’ And I was, like, ‘Oh, they’re gonna tell me the truth.’ ”
Beers, in the up-speak both women use in conversation, tried to remember whether she was actually mad at the time. “I think on the scale of 1 to 10, we weren’t awfully pissed?” she said.
With Mark Gordon Co., Rhimes developed a show about female war correspondents that didn’t end up being made. Then came “Grey’s,” and its unexpected success in March 2005. Beers found herself “sneaking over” to “Grey’s” to work on it, she said.
“That was where the fun was,” Rhimes said. “That’s what I like to think.”
Beers officially joined “Grey’s” in early 2006. She and Rhimes have ridden the show’s highs together, as well as its lows in Season 3, during which the media followed every rift in the cast, the deepest of which was caused by the Washington mess. So what have they learned?
Rhimes answered first. “To wear an extremely good dress to the Golden Globes, because they’re going to show that image over and over and over again,” she said, referring to when Washington stepped in front of her backstage after the show won best drama to deny that he had called T.R. Knight “a faggot.”
Beers then added, “No matter how hard you try to control things, you can’t.”
Rhimes said: “I feel like what we learned is that you take everything as it comes, and you stay on your feet. For us that was really important. Keep the family the family, and keep going forward.”
Beers continued: “And keep the stories a priority.”
There, some “Grey’s” fans might quibble, since there were rumblings of discontent in the second half of the season that the show had lost its way, and had become, frankly, a bummer. “Season 3 was a lot about them growing up,” Rhimes said, talking about the friends-as-family group at the center of the “Grey’s” story.
But in Season 4, which begins tomorrow, “They’re sort of getting to have a new day,” she added. “They all get to sort of start fresh, which I’m excited about.”
Perhaps it’s left to McPherson to offer the most practical view of how to measure the success of both shows going forward. “When people are talking about shows, good and bad, it means they’re invested in them,” he said with a laugh. “You know, the last thing I want is people not talking about our shows.”