When I was young, my dad didn’t allow me and my sister to watch any show that didn't have a Black-leading character (never saw a single episode of The Brady Bunch, obviously).
I remember sitting him down and showing him how often Kim Fields appeared on The Facts Of Life. It was not enough, as far as he was concerned. And it wasn’t just having Black faces. It also had to be a show where Black folks had a plot that wasn’t problematic. So, I couldn't watch Diff’rent Stokes, a show about two Black orphans raised by the white man who employed their mother as his maid before she died. As a Black woman obsessed with images of people who looked like me, the ‘70s and ‘80s were tough for me until The Cosby Show and A Different World. I was heartbroken when each of those went off the air.
For years, when shows that present complicated and honest portrayals of people that look like me go off the air, I take it personally. From Girlfriends and Living Single to Scandal and everything in between, I shake my tiny fist and rail about the unfairness. Mainstream media has plenty of awesome shows — and I love many of them. (Yup. I watched I. Fight me.)
But it’s so special and rare when I feel like something is really for me or my sister or my mom or my daughters. It hurts to see those shows (and their creators) walk away. Even if it's time.
So now it’s time for Shonda Rhimes to break my heart.
I know it doesn’t make sense. But it is what it is. Hearing that Rhimes is moving her Shondaland production company to Netflix makes me wary. Network television, with all its flaws and its increased competition from so many outlets, is still network television. It’s still free. It’s still the thing you can watch from the moment you turn your television on. It’s still where the masses get their information and entertainment. While it’s true that an increasing number of us have Hulu Plus and Netflix and HBO Go on top of 500 channels of basic cable—the vast majority of us have plain old basic network television. It still matters.
And for years, Shonda Rhimes has brought those honest and authentic portrayals of women of color and the LGBTQ community right smack dab into mainstream America’s living room.
I don't want that to end. Rhimes is one of a precious few doing it. Will ABC or NBC or CBS anoint another Black woman worthy of this kind of power and creativity? Will the entertainment industry as a whole, from film schools to internships to assistant positions, nurture women of color, making them attractive to network television?
Now, Shonda Rhimes was talented first. She was not a Black woman who got a lucky break. She paid her dues and climbed up. Her legend has been forever cemented and while Grey’s Anatomy and How To Get Away With Murder will remain on ABC, her move to Netflix leaves uncertainty. Rhimes’ job is not over. It’s just up to someone else to take over. Just because we’ve had three strongly written characters of color on network television doesn't mean we cross that goal off of our list and move on.
While Black women producers are flourishing on cable television, Black women show runners on network television are rare and none have ever been responsible for three hit shows on one night.
I know better than to think that Shonda owes us anything. She’s kicked in doors that will forever remain open (hopefully.) And no matter what, she’s laid a blueprint.
What will Rhimes’ second act look like? We already know that she’s #TeamBlackFolks and she has nothing left to prove. It’s possible that she’ll go for lighter fare that’s not necessarily on message. It remains to be seen.
For over a decade, Rhimes has had an uncanny never-say-never approach to creating winning content at a major network. She created a powerful programming block that hadn’t been seen since ABC’s TGIF block in the ‘90s, featuring Full House and Family Matters.
The future? Hopefully the rest of us — even those of us who don't pay for television — will likely get another quality show to live tweet and binge watch.
Because the next Shonda Rhimes is holed up in a living room or a coffee shop writing, right now.
(Photo: Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic)