On American TV network ABC, Thursday nights are promoted as TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday). There’s even a hashtag. Why should viewers be thankful when they still have to get up and go to work the next day? Because Thursday is when the triple bill of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder airs – and to millions in the US, those drama series are pure heaven.
The promotional strategy seems to be working (or at least not hurting). Even though it’s into its 12th season, medical drama Grey’s Anatomy still pulls in an audience of around 12 million. White House soap Scandal has a devoted following of around 13 million for its fifth season and ratings for the second season of legal drama How To Get Away With Murder sit at around 11 million.
Remarkably, all three series continue to be appointment TV, watched live by a high percentage of overall fans. Viewers are encouraged to tune in as the shows go to air by an aggressive social media campaign – yep, that hashtag, as well as active tweeting by all three casts and the cultivation of a fan community. Record the series to watch them in your own time and miss out on all the fun.
As well as their social media appeal, all three shows share several other things in common – strong female leads, a reliance on the shock twist, ethnically diverse casts. But the main reason they are spoken of in the same breath is because they are all executive produced by Shonda Rhimes.
In America, Rhimes is one of those behind-the-scenes players who has become as famous as the stars of her series. She appears in TV ads for TGIT and on magazine covers - Entertainment Weekly recently ran a cover feature on the Shondaland (her production company) stable of shows.
It’s a very different story in Australia. Look for Grey’s, Scandal or Murder on the schedule of local broadcaster Channel 7 and you’ll find them relegated to late-night slots around 10 or 11pm. Long gone are the days when Grey’s Anatomy was a top rating show in this country – and Rhimes’ other two series have never been especially strong performers locally.
Ratings aside, there’s very little buzz surrounding any of the three programs in Australia. While reality staples like The Block, The Bachelor and My Kitchen Rules whip local audiences into a social media frenzy, you’re unlikely to see #HTGAWM or #Olitz (the portmanteau of Scandal’s main couple) trending. So why isn’t Australia a part of the cult of Shonda Rhimes?
It’s not that Australian audiences are opposed to addictive TV dramas. It’s just that the local taste is more for down-to-earth family fare like Packed to the Rafters and 800 Words than the over-the-top histrionics of Rhimes’ series. One of the defining features of the three shows is melodrama that makes daytime soap operas look restrained.
It wasn’t so noticeable with Grey’s Anatomy, since hospital dramas are heightened by their very nature, and those life or death stakes have believably spilled over into the lives of doctors since the dawn of the TV drama. Sure, the staff members of Seattle Grace Hospital (or whatever it’s called these days) were a little too articulate with their on-the-spot monologues and the series as a whole made ER look like an observational documentary by comparison – but it wasn’t too jarring.
When it came to Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder – even though those series also operate in fairly heightened circumstances – it became clear that gasp-worthy drama was Rhimes’ signature style. And it’s a style that doesn’t necessarily sit that well with Aussie viewers.
Both Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder feature ensemble casts, most of whom teeter on the edge of hysteria week in, week out. For your average laidback Aussie, the over-reacting – and over-acting – is a little tough to swallow. Series leads Kerry Washington and Viola Davis have been appropriately lauded for their roles, and both seem to know when to hold back and when to really let loose. Unfortunately, those around them don’t bring as much subtlety to their performances, with the default position of some cast members seemingly set at 11.
Australia’s not immune to the charms of a well-crafted primetime soap, but our patience tends to wear thin once the initial novelty has worn off. Like Grey’s Anatomy, Revenge was must-see TV in its first year, but viewers quickly abandoned it once the style outweighed the substance. And that’s the problem with Rhimes’ shows for local viewers – since they are so stylised, it’s hard to get past that and enjoy the substance: what are often interesting plot arcs and stand-alone episodes.
Follow Gavin Scott on Twitter.