Why Grey's Anatomy Creator Shonda Rhimes Feels The Show Might Have A 'Sad' Legacy

Richard Webber and Miranda Bailey look down the hall of the hospital on Grey's Anatomy.
(Image credit: ABC)

Grey’s Anatomy premiered back in 2005 as a midseason replacement for Boston Legal on ABC, and just like that, Shonda Rhimes was skyrocketed into television history. As America fell in love with Meredith and Derek, fostered dreams of being Cristina, and adopted Webber and Bailey as surrogate parents, Rhimes cemented her legacy in the world of primetime TV with more hits including Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder and Private Practice. Now, with Grey’s Anatomy in its 18th season, it’s as unknown as ever if there will be more, and Rhimes has put some thought into the overall legacy of the show that started it all for her. 

When you look at the success Shonda Rhimes has had, and the number of stars that Grey’s Anatomy has produced in its 16 years — especially considering the diversity of the cast and the social issues it’s tackled — you wouldn’t think that the medical drama’s legacy would be viewed as anything but stellar. But the show’s creator has a different perspective. Rhimes told Variety she thinks Grey’s Anatomy’s legacy might end up not being about the show at all, but rather a reflection of the industry.

Sadly, I think the legacy might simply just be that we made it possible for more people of color to have jobs on camera on television, which makes me embarrassed for television.

When Grey’s Anatomy debuted in 2005, three of the higher-ranking surgeons in the hospital were Black, and Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) and Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) are still running Grey-Sloan in Season 18, while Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) was around for the first three seasons before leaving on more than one awkward note. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) was also a major player as Meredith’s “person” and the most talent-driven of the hospital’s new interns. It shouldn’t have taken until 2005 to normalize seeing people of color in these major roles, Shonda Rhimes said.

It sounds arrogant to say it, but to me it makes me sad to have to say it. We changed the faces that you see on television. And it should not have taken so long for that to happen.

Shonda Rhimes is absolutely right, but as a longtime fan of her shows, I applaud her for the contributions she made to diversifying TV casting, however delayed the change was. But that won’t be the only thing Grey’s Anatomy will be remembered for, of course. Rhimes spoke to another “magical” takeaway that has come from the show’s eighteen seasons so far, with this serving as more of an ideal foundation for the show's legacy.

The number of women who have become doctors because of that show is magical to me. The number of people who’ve come to me and told me that they learned how to do CPR, or figured out that they were having a heart attack because of that show, is magical to me.

While Shonda Rhimes years ago passed on Grey’s Anatomy showrunning duties to Krista Vernoff, the fight for representation continues. In Season 18, Grey’s Anatomy has cast its first nonbinary doctor, as E.R. Fightmaster (of Shrill fame) has joined in a recurring role. In Season 17, Robert I. Mesa was upgraded to a recurring role as James Chee, part of the new intern class and the series’ first indigenous doctor, to say nothing of other diversity-minded casting and character choices in recent years.

Grey’s Anatomy airs at 9 p.m. ET Thursdays on ABC. It will return from a short hiatus on November 11 with a crossover event with Station 19, in which someone from one of the two Seattle dramas is going to die. Also be sure to check out our 2021 TV Schedule to see what shows are premiering through the end of the year.

Heidi Venable
Content Producer

Mom of two and hard-core '90s kid. Unprovoked, will quote Friends in any situation. Thrives on New Orleans Saints football, The West Wing and taco trucks.