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The State of Shonda: Checking in on ‘For the People’ and ‘Station 19’

The legal drama and the ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ spinoff may be some of Rhimes’s last shows for ABC

ABC/Ringer illustration

The end of a television era is nigh, or maybe it’s already arrived. Seven months ago, a slow summer news week became anything but when Netflix announced its splashiest acquisition to date: the rights to all future series under the auspices of Shonda Rhimes, the super-producer who’s spent the last 15 years of her career in a fruitful relationship with ABC Studios. According to Variety, Rhimes had previously made it clear that she planned to part ways with ABC once her contract there expired in June 2018. But the impact was no less seismic for being premeditated. For Netflix, there was the undeniable flex of co-opting one of broadcast’s last reliable hitmakers, a streak it would continue just a few months later by poaching Ryan Murphy from Fox. For Rhimes, there was the exciting prospect of tweaking her effortlessly diverse, relentlessly entertaining signature aesthetic for a new home well outside the confines of network TV.

As Rhimes was careful to reiterate in a January presentation to the Television Critics Association, her partnership with ABC doesn’t have a hard cutoff, and in fact still continues in the form of several continuing Shondaland series, to which ABC owns the rights along with any potential spinoffs. But while Grey’s Anatomy, now in its 14th season, and How to Get Away with Murder, now in its fourth, are still going strong, Scandal just wrapped shooting and will air its series finale later this spring. The Netflix wing of Shondaland is just beginning, while the ABC one is showing signs of age—which makes an infusion of fresh blood especially noteworthy at such a critical juncture for producer and network alike.

Into this uncertain atmosphere step two brand-new Shondaland series, likely to be some of ABC’s last. The shows debuted within weeks of each other earlier this month: first For the People, a legal drama from Scandal writer Paul William Davies, and then Station 19, a second Grey’s Anatomy spinoff from longtime Grey’s producer Stacy McKee. For the People follows a group of young attorneys starting work at the prestigious Southern District Court of New York, while Station 19 tracks its namesake fire squad, operating in close proximity to, and sometimes in conjunction with, Seattle Grace. Both shows hew closely to the Rhimesian template, updating and building on the fundamentals of the sustainable procedural ensemble rather than attempting to move past them. But when even Rhimes appears primed to move past that template by taking advantage of streaming and the freedom that comes with it, both budgetary and creative, is a faithfully executed formula enough?

For the People may have more direct ties to Scandal, but its “bright-eyed young professionals trying to figure stuff out together” set-up is ripped straight from the Grey’s playbook, with trial attorneys swapped out for hospital interns. For maximum conflict, the cast is split into two equal and opposite opposing teams: the prosecutors, working under Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Gunn (Ben Shenkman, better known to The Ringer’s core demographic as “Ira from Billions”), and the defense attorneys, headed up by Federal Public Defender Jill Carlan (Hope Davis). With a suitably officious opening speech from Chief Judge Nicholas Byrne (Vondie Curtis-Hall) outlining the Manhattan venue’s storied history as the so-called “Mother Court,” everyone’s off to learning the hard realities of life as a political foot soldier and chronically disadvantaged idealist, respectively.

For the People’s cards are stacked ever-so-slightly in favor of the defenders, as one might expect from a producer whose liberal politics are outspoken and well-documented. Law school BFFs Allison (Jasmin Savoy Brown), a native New Yorker, and Sandra Bell (Britt Robertson), an impassioned transplant fresh off a clerkship, are clearly intended to be the Meredith and Cristina of this scenario, with Carlan as their tough, anti-maternal Miranda Bailey. The prosecutors aren’t necessarily villains—Susannah Flood in particular stands out as a Type A perfectionist who has to learn to play well with others—but as the dogged naifs who get to deliver stirring speeches about justice and fairness and prejudice, the defense carries the day in the audience’s minds, if not always in court.

The overall vibe is pleasant enough, planting the seeds of a fun yet sincere workplace drama: think the impassioned pragmatism of The Good Wife with a dash of girls-in-the-city shows like Younger or The Bold Type. But For the People has flatlined in the ratings, premiering to just 3.2 million viewers and sliding to 2.7 in week two, meaning it’s unlikely to see that potential realized in a second season. (By comparison, Grey’s still regularly exceeds 7 million viewers, and the How to Get Away with Murder/Scandal crossover event earlier this month notched over 4 million.) For the People arguably lacks the salacious drama that keeps many Shonda fans tuning in week after week; none of these lawyers will be asking their significant others why their penis is on a dead girl’s phone. The series definitely starts at a disadvantage without the star power of a Davis or Kerry Washington at the helm; Brown’s most prominent role to date was on the excellent but little-watched HBO series The Leftovers, and Robertson fronted the swiftly cancelled Netflix comedy Girlboss. And while Ellen Pompeo and Sandra Oh weren’t bankable celebrities either when Grey’s started out, the link between the flagship of the Shondaland empire and its latest offshoot might not be immediately clear to the casual viewer testing out a new legal show.

Station 19 has no such problem, given that the producers bend over backwards to establish an explicit link with Grey’s in the very first episode. (This in addition to “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” the backdoor pilot—an episode of a pre-existing series intended to set up a spinoff—that aired as a chapter of Grey’s earlier this month.) The two shows share a common character in Ben Warren (Jason George), an anesthesiologist at Seattle Grace turned EMT for the fire department. He is also, notably, married to Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), who of course shows up in the first episode to give her discouraged husband a pep talk about switching careers.

Ben isn’t the protagonist of Station 19, though: that would be Andy Herrera (Jaina Lee Ortiz), a young firefighter trying to step into some awfully big shoes after the captain, who also happens to be her father, steps down to deal with a cancer diagnosis. Andy is the clear center of Station 19 where For the People actively avoids one, and as such, she gets her own link to the Grey’s family tree: at Seattle Grace after her father collapses, Andy gets a pull-up-your-socks pep talk from Meredith Grey herself. The cameos don’t feel nearly as forced as they could be, given that firefighters and hospital workers have any number of reasons to interact on a regular basis. As a fledgling soap, though, Station 19 sets up some improbable circumstances of its own: Andy’s main rival for the captain job is also her very recent ex; post-breakup, she has an extremely ill-advised rebound hook-up with her childhood friend, who’s a cop. It’s McDreamy and McSteamy, civic employee edition!

Station 19 starts on slightly firmer creative footing than For the People, aided by literal life-or-death stakes that immediately lay an emotional foundation that’s arguably a shortcut but undoubtedly effective. (Like Grey’s, Station 19 leans into the sheer exhaustion of a 24-hour job, and the reckless behavior that can result.) The show also has a much stronger sense of survival, having brought in more than 5 million viewers for its premiere directly following Grey’s. Still, those numbers aren’t as robust as they could be: Station 19 lost out to its time slot competitor Chicago Fire, on NBC, despite being the splashy premiere to Chicago’s routine midseason outing. Though it’s significantly juicier than For the People—rather than Grey’s, its closest TV cousin might actually be Murphy’s unrepentantly over-the-top blockbuster 9-1-1—and has a more compelling, specific thematic core in Andy’s ascent to leadership, Station 19 may not be able to break through the noise, either.

Neither these shaky starts nor the loss of ABC’s highest-profile producing partner spell certain disaster in the near future. Given that the last year has seen the debut of both surprise smash The Good Doctor and the less-surprising-but-still-extraordinary ratings bonanza that is the Roseanne revival, the state of the ABC drama brand is troubled, but not dire. It also ought to be noted that Rhimes’ track record, like any creator’s in a competitive and capricious industry like television, isn’t entirely spotless, particularly over the last few years as the medium’s creative and financial resurgence has metastasized into Peak TV. Glitzy crime caper The Catch only lasted a couple seasons before wrapping up last spring; revisionist Shakespeare riff Still Star-Crossed was an intriguing departure from Rhimes’ roster of contemporary procedurals, which might have been what doomed it after just a few months. (Even at the height of the Grey’s/Private Practice Run, there was a brief stumble with Off the Map, a largely forgotten 2011 medical drama that only lasted half a season.) Rhimes is a singular force who helped change the face of network television, propelled Viola Davis to becoming the first-ever woman of color to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama Series, and crafted an entire, hashtaggable programming bloc encompassing an entire weeknight’s primetime real estate. But in 2018, the competition is so steep, and the prevailing trends so stacked against ad-supported network television, that even the best in the business can’t be a silver bullet.

While watching these two freshman shows, I couldn’t help speculating that Rhimes’ influence might be a double-edged sword. The rest of television, particularly broadcast, has a long way to go in terms of representation, but the lessons of Rhimes’ success have still been internalized to the point that a Muslim lawyer defending a white supremacist, or a Latina firefighter struggling to be taken seriously by her peers, is no longer quite as groundbreaking as they would have seemed in a pre-Grey’s or -Scandal world. Rhimes herself is clearly doing just fine, and seems enthusiastic to move onto a new phase of her career after conquering the soothing-yet-addictive network drama. For the People and Station 19’s muted receptions indicate her audience might be ready for something new, too.