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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

We turn our attention now to the high-drama soapy world of network television.

(Soundbite of Grey's Anatomy)

Ms. SANDRA OH (Actor): (As Dr. Cristina Yang) James Carlton, age 46. Paramedics found him unconscious and bleeding. Mechanisms of injury are unknown. He has a large sucking chest wound...

Mr. JUSTIN CHAMBERS (Actor): (As Dr. Alex Karev) He shot himself with a bazooka.

Ms. ELLEN POMPEO (Actor): (As Dr. Meredith Grey) Yeah.

Mr. CHAMBERS: (As Karev) He shot himself with a bazooka.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) Like I said, morons, the pair of them.

Mr. CHAMBERS: (As Karev) Was there an explosion?

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Huh?

Mr. CHAMBERS: (As Karev) Was there an explosion?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) No. Why?

ELLIOTT: A patient is brought in with an unexploded bomb in his stomach. Meanwhile the chief resident is giving birth down the hall, and as always, behind the closed doors of this Seattle hospital, surgeons in training are sorting out their messy sex lives.

(Soundbite of Grey's Anatomy)

Mr. ISAIAH WASHINGTON (Actor): (As Dr. Preston Burke): You didn't leave a note.

Ms. SANDRA OH (Actor): (As Christina Yang) Yeah, well, I had this thing to do. I - you know, I did this thing.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Burke) And once again.

Ms. OH: (As Christina Yang) What?

Mr. WASHINGTON: We go to sleep. I think everything is fine, and by the time I wake up, you're just a little bit crazy.

Ms. OH: (As Christina Yang) I - I'm not...

ELLIOTT: This material has made Grey's Anatomy one of television's most popular programs. With the new season beginning this week, we speak with creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes. She joins us from NPR West.

You know, as medical drama's go, this one is a little bit different. I think a lot of people may think of ER as your quintessential medical drama, but Grey's Anatomy has a much more soap opera-like quality to it. It almost seems as if at some point as you were coming up with the concept, you sat in a hospital cafeteria listening to the gossip all around you and started taking notes.

Ms. RHIMES: Well, I've never actually thought of Grey's as a medical show. I mean, of course it's categorized that way. I always thought of it as a workplace show, a relationship show that had some surgery thrown in for good measure. And yeah, I mean I talked to a lot of interns when we were developing the show and got to hear some very interesting stories.

ELLIOTT: Do you have like a surgeon consultant there to help you make sure that part works?

Ms. RHIMES: We have several. We have a surgeon who consults and reads every script and sort of vets it for us. We have a doctor who is a writer on staff. We have Linda Kline, who has spent a career creating surgeries. So she teaches the doctors, that actors, how to perform to the surgeries and she fills the O.R. with scrub nurses - real actual scrub nurses - so that the doctors are surrounded by people who know what they're doing. And she makes the surgeries look real.

(Soundbite of Grey's Anatomy)

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Okay. How's his respiratory effort?

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) I have some breath sounds on the right side - air bubbling at the side of the wound. He's shocky and getting a little cyanotic.

ELLIOTT: You show a little bit of the gore.

Ms. RHIMES: We do. I feel like you want to see just enough of the gore and blood and the guts to see what it is that excites our surgeons so much. And not enough to make you feel queasy. That's sort of the goal, because I find surgery fascinating. I like to watch surgeries on that surgery channel. And so if I like to watch it, I feel like people might want to see a little bit of it. And you want to understand why the surgeons are so into what they're doing.

ELLIOTT: For people who haven't seen the show, let's give them a little bit of a taste of what's happening. The central character, Meredith Grey, is this surgical resident. She's having an affair with the surgeon on the staff who happens to be married to the hospital's top neonatal surgeon, and he's the Dr. McDreamy in all of this. He's this handsome man who's very charismatic, and they have this thing going on yet there's the wife around. And then you've got Meredith, who her mother has had an affair with the chief of surgery, so she's got all of that going on in her head.

Ms. RHIMES: Years ago, yeah.

ELLIOTT: It's not your average love triangle. This is actually a very complicated geometry that underlines this show. How do you keep up with it all?

Ms. RHIMES: To me there's a sense of real history there for the characters. And I like to give the feeling that if you were watching the show 20 years ago, you would see almost the same story playing out as you see right now.

ELLIOTT: You have a very talented cast. The show even won an Emmy this year for casting. But what's interesting is the diversity of your characters. You have lots of different people representing different races and ethnicities on the program. The chief surgeon is African-American. The chief resident is an African-American woman who is also a very busy mother. There's a Latina doctor. Did you try to do that? Is that - was that intentional on your part?

Ms. RHIMES: It was a little bit intentional. I mean, we really just wanted to cast the best actor for the part no matter what that part was. This assumption that a character can only be played if they're white or if they're black or if they're Asian in a certain way is ludicrous to me. I just feel like there are lots of shows that are happy to portray certain ethnicities in a certain light. They're happy to show you an African-American drug dealer, and I just felt like we don't have to do that.

I mean, the cool thing about having your own show is creating a world. And in my world we're not showing that. And to me it's not about not telling the truth about something; it's simply - really, is that really all you think that characters can be?

ELLIOTT: Because you are an African-American woman producing a television program, do you think people ask you the questions about race and ethnicity, that somehow you're going to have all the answers to that?

Ms. RHIMES: Yes, I do. It's interesting. I don't think - I mean they don't ask Damon Lindelof, who created Lost, those questions, and his cast is just as diverse.

ELLIOTT: I just wondered if ever it kind of bugged you to answer these questions all the time.

Ms. RHIMES: It can be a little frustrating because I feel like it's sort of the point of the show, which is nobody represents everybody. No one person can be representative of an entire race. So it's a little frustrating, but I do understand it on some level.

ELLIOTT: Now, you grew up in Chicago, am I right?

Ms. RHIMES: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago; University Park, Illinois.

ELLIOTT: So how does that play in what you're creating? You're not your typical Hollywood producer, or at least you don't sound like it to me.

Ms. RHIMES: I'm not. I mean, what I like about getting to write a show is that I feel like I truly am a Midwestern TV viewer, in a lot of ways, who got to write her own television show. So in a lot of ways I feel like my - my values and my viewpoint really come from that. My sisters are, you know, suburban housewives or moms or teachers. And that kind of thing sort of keeps you focused on what's really real to people in this country, as opposed to sort of the Hollywood way.

ELLIOTT: Now, obviously you're very tightlipped about what we're going to see in the upcoming season of Grey's Anatomy, but word is that that little girl from the movie Little Miss Sunshine will make an appearance, and that Dianne Carol will be on a program or two. Anything else you can tell us to look forward to?

Ms. RHIMES: Well, those things are definitely true, and it was really exciting to have Ms. Dianne Carol. I'm not sure what else I could tell you. I mean, I feel like one of the joys of a show is watching it for the first time and not knowing ahead of time what's going to happen.

ELLIOTT: Do the actors know what's going to happen?

Ms. RHIMES: On some level they absolutely do not know what's going to happen. You know, we have had actors say, I don't want to know what's going to happen, I don't want the burden of having to tell people I don't, you know, what might happen and what not or say the wrong thing. And also it's a little bit more fun that way. They get to stay in the moment. You feel them feel the script. And you discover what's surprising to them and what works.

ELLIOTT: Shonda Rhimes is executive producer and creator of Grey's Anatomy. She's been speaking with us from NPR West. Thank you.

Ms. RHIMES: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of Grey's Anatomy)

Ms. KATHERINE HEIGL (Actor): (As Izzie Stevens) I think he's going to die. I think he's going to die. I killed him.

Mr. T.R. KNIGHT (Actor): (As O'Malley) You shouldn't have done it.

Ms. ELLEN POMPEO (Actor): (As Meredith Grey) George.

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) We have to tell someone.

Ms. POMPEO (Actor): (As Meredith Grey) No. Jenny won't get the heart and Izzy'll get kicked out of the program.

Ms. OH: I'm leaving.

Unidentified Woman #6: (As character) Christina.

Unidentified Woman #3 (Actor): (As character) You know, Burke could die too. Complications arise all the time because of gunshot wounds. You think about that.

Unidentified Woman #6: (As character) You know what? None of this would have happened if you...

(Soundbite of overlapping voices)

Unidentified Woman #6: (As character) Shut up! Shut up!

ELLIOTT: Okay then.

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