Why we love Shondaland

Shonda Rhimes: 'My dreams can suck it'
Shonda Rhimes: 'My dreams can suck it'

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Shonda Rhimes: 'My dreams can suck it' 02:10

Story highlights

  • This week ABC announced it had ordered a new Shondaland series, a crime thriller, for next year
  • LZ: There's an authenticity and courage to Shonda Rhimes' shows and characters that we are drawn to

LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor, a senior writer for ESPN and a lecturer at Northwestern University. He is a former Hechinger Institute fellow, and his commentary has been recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)"Why is your penis on a dead girl's phone?"

If you have no idea what I'm talking about then chances are you don't know who Annalise Keating is. And if you don't know who she is, then it's likely you haven't tuned in to ABC to visit Shondaland.
Those nine words epitomized the drama behind ABC's legal show, "How To Get Away With Murder," which has shattered viewership numbers, delivered a SAG award to actress Viola Davis for her portrayal of Keating and shined the crown that comfortably rests on the head of one of the most influential women in culture today -- Shonda Rhimes.
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    "There is an unrivaled commitment to her shows," Marla Provencio, ABC's chief marketing officer, said about Rhimes. "Thursday night has become a destination, with a sense of urgency to watch these shows live so the conversation can flow along with the wine. There are screening parties that revolve around them. Wine and popcorn have become the staple of the night."
    In other words, Shondaland -- the name given to Rhimes' collection of TV dramas: "Murder," "Scandal" and the matriarch, "Grey's Anatomy."
    When ABC packaged the three shows together last fall, it earned its best Thursday night ratings in five years.
    This week the network announced it had ordered a new Shondaland series, a crime thriller, for next year. But attempts to explain the full breadth of Rhimes' influence through the prism of Nielsen ratings would be like ditching GPS to use half a map for directions.
    Her shows not only feature strong fascinating characters, they are also played by strong fascinating people. Usually, television producers of popular shows are reluctant to let their main actors take visible bold stances on controversial social issues for fear of alienating eyeballs. Rhimes appears to welcome it.
    Kerry Washington, who's in "Scandal," has not shied away from topics such as the role of affirmative action. In Davis' acceptance speech at the SAG awards she spoke about the importance of diversity, thanking Rhimes and others for thinking a "mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old, dark-skinned, African-American woman who looks like me." And "Grey's Anatomy" actor Jesse Williams not only spoke out against racism and police brutality during the Ferguson conflict, he traveled to the St. Louis suburb to participate in the marches.
    "I think that she's drawn to and writes about independent-minded, head strong male and female characters and so art sometimes imitates life," Williams said. "What's astonishing is that our show 'Grey's Anatomy,' started off miles ahead all other TV shows because of its diversity and representation of people from all walks of life. There wasn't any chest pounding about it, it just was. We're people, that's it. But we're strong people, like her. She's not trying to make a political gesture, she is one. She's like 'I'm dope with or without your racism; I'm dope with or without your sexism.' It's not a strategy. It's not seeing any reason to compromise and then demonstrating there is no need to do so."
    And so when Rhimes stands in front of a room to receive a diversity award and calls out the industry for its lack of diversity -- as she did at last year's Director's Guild of America awards -- you know it's not narcissistic grandstanding. It's advocating for ideas and principals bigger than herself.
    When she stands in front of a room to accept an award for breaking the glass ceiling, and takes the occasion to give credit to all of the women in Hollywood who came before her, you know the appreciation is coming from someone who recognizes none of us get to where we are on our own.
    "Different voices make for different visions," she said at the DGA awards. "Different visions make for something original. Original is what the public is starving for."
    Which is why it feels as if everything Rhimes places on a network's platter gets gobbled up by the Shondaland community every Thursday night. It's not that she is the only producer helming shows with snappy dialogue, office politics and sex. It's that there's an authentic, big tent feel to the debauchery that is unfolding on screen. And an authentic, big tent feel away from it.
    When one of Rhimes' Twitter followers complained about the "gay scenes" in her shows, she responded: "There are no GAY scenes. There are scenes with people in them."
    I don't know if Meredith and Derek will stay together or if Olivia and Fitz will ever be together. I just know that if you have no idea who any of those people are, you are probably doing Thursday wrong.