Shonda Rhimes Explains Why She Had to Kill McDreamy

The prolific TV creator dishes on her complicated characters

Soon after ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee suggested to Adweek that ABC's recent success wasn't entirely due to Shonda Rhimes, Jimmy Kimmel took him to task during May's upfront presentation.

"Paul said that ABC's successful season was only partially due to Shonda, which is kind of like saying the success of Thriller is only partially due to Michael Jackson," Kimmel joked.

But when ABC assembled its talent for the Television Critics Association's summer press tour on Tuesday, the network left no doubt as to who its most important asset is. It saved the best for last, devoting the day's final panel to Rhimes and her three TGIT shows: Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. A fourth Rhimes show is also on the way, as she's also executive producing the network's midseason drama The Catch.

While the panel also included her show's three stars—Kerry Washington, Viola Davis and Ellen Pompeo—Rhimes was clearly the main attraction. 

Rhimes says because she is only serving as showrunner on two of her four series—Grey's and Scandal—her schedule remains manageable. "I once actually was running three shows. I had Grey's Anatomy. I had Private Practice. I had Scandal. That was when I almost fell over and died," she said.

But for How to Get Away With Murder and The Catch, which she serves as executive producer (both shows were created by other people), she allows herself to be "a proud grandmother with a baby. I say, 'Oh, it's great,' and give it back, and go back to my job."

Rhimes explained her shocking decision to kill off Patrick Dempsey's character, Derek Shepherd, on Grey's Anatomy last season after the actor decided to leave the show.

"The decision to have the character die in the way he did was not a difficult one in the sense of, what were the options? Either Derek was going to walk out on Meredith [Pompeo's character] and leave her high and dry, and what was that going to mean? That was going to suggest that the love was not true, the thing that we had said for 11 years was a lie and McDreamy wasn't McDreamy. For me, that was untenable," said Rhimes. "As painful as it was for me as a storyteller, because I never thought that was going to happen, the only way to preserve what felt true to me was that Derek was going to have to die in order for that love to remain honest."

When asked about Paul Lee's comments earlier in the day that Grey's could run for "many, many years to come," Rhimes said, "I agree with everything that Paul Lee says."

She stayed mum about the upcoming season's storylines on her shows, though Rhimes did allow that Grey's would be "much lighter" this season after last year's tragedy, and on Scandal, "we are picking up almost pretty much where we left off [in the season finale], which was a pretty harrowing place."

Rhimes was more forthcoming when asked how Olivia Pope—Washington's crisis manager character from Scandal—might handle Donald Trump as a client. "Do you think she would tell him to do something about the hair?" Rhimes asked Washington, who said, "We've had characters say outrageous things on our show, so it wouldn't be out of the question for someone who says outrageous things to be on our show."

One thing Rhimes doesn't make time for: anything related to the scheduling and marketing of her shows, including ABC's successful TGIT branding, which air back to back to back on Thursday nights. "I absolutely don't worry about things that I have no control over," Rhimes said. "I don't have anything to do with the marketing, and I don't have anything to do with the scheduling, so I do not spend any time worrying."

She also wasn't entertaining any questions from journalists about her larger role in redefining and changing the network, or the industry. "I certainly don't spend any time thinking about legacy, because we're still doing this. I really think staying in the present is more useful," she said.