Shonda Rhimes has launched TV superstars before — such as the entire cast of Grey’s Anatomy, led by Ellen Pompeo. But even she was caught off guard by the uproar earlier this year when Netflix and her company Shondaland announced that Regé-Jean Page, everyone’s favourite duke, was leaving Bridgerton behind, and wouldn’t be appearing in the show’s second season.
“What I loved was we were going to create this powerful, exciting, amazing romance,” Rhimes says of the relationship between Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings (Page) and Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor). “And then for once in television, they were going to get to have their happily ever after versus — well, you know! In network television, you have to come up with 15 years of why a couple has to be apart.”
Page, 31, is a British-Zimbabwean star in Netflix’s Regency romance drama Bridgerton.
Upon learning of Page’s departure, the internet erupted in mourning.
“I don’t think I expected everybody to have such a reaction to it,” Rhimes says. “My assumption of what people knew of romance novels was … I overestimated a great deal.”
But she gets it. “People’s attachment to couples is real — I mean, I know that better than anybody,” Rhimes says. “And I think that means success. But I do understand their despair.”
Then again, maybe Rhimes, 51, shouldn’t have been surprised at all. Bridgerton, her long-awaited series debut for Netflix, exploded onto the streamer on Christmas Day 2020, and became a worldwide phenomenon — a cozy, carnal holiday binge. Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-CEO, revealed this fall that the Regency-period romance had topped Netflix’s charts as its most-watched original series of all time (before Squid Game came along), in both households and in time spent viewing.
Netflix head of global TV Bela Bajaria tells Variety that the streamer’s deal with Shondaland is successful based on what it calls the “‘Bridgerton-verse” alone.
“With Bridgerton, 82 million member households around the world watched it in the first 28 days,” Bajaria says. “It didn’t have to be the biggest — but it’s amazing that it was.”
Rhimes has made a home for herself at Netflix, having succeeded there where some of her high-powered peers have flailed. With a newly renewed four-year deal, in which she will make US$150 million with a bonus that could be worth an additional US$200 million, she is the highest-paid showrunner on television, and she’s one of the most influential creators ever to work in the medium.
Inventing Anna, her limited series about the grifter Anna Delvey, and the first show she herself has written for the streamer, will premiere in February, Variety can reveal exclusively. And Bridgerton will return for Season 2 in 2022. These are among the many reasons Rhimes has been selected as Variety’s Show Woman of the Year.
When asked what she sees as her next frontier, Rhimes casually mentions that she is learning to play the cello. The cello?
“It’s a whole long Yo-Yo Ma story,” Rhimes says with a smile, “and I’m not going to tell it.” The point is, she says, she is trying something different.
“I’m building the company,” she says, sounding instructive and clear, like one of her fictional creations — perhaps Olivia Pope from Scandal or Cristina Yang of Grey’s Anatomy.
“Netflix has been a really happy place for me. Creatively, I feel very fulfilled in a way that I haven’t felt fulfilled in a long time.”
Yet despite Rhimes’ singular qualities, her transition to Netflix wasn’t seamless. She was undoubtedly making headway: Shondaland was developing projects like Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels, and in June 2018, it won a bidding war for Jessica Pressler’s viral New York Magazine story about Anna Delvey (real name: Anna Sorokin) — a 27-year-old fabulist who had scammed elite New Yorkers and landed in prison for financial crimes.
Netflix’s new deal with Shondaland, announced in July, has even expanded the relationship to include movies, gaming and virtual reality content. Rhimes has no solid plans for the digital projects yet, but she is very interested in those worlds, and wanted to make sure “that space was carved out”.
Rhimes is also currently focused — like, turn-off-the-internet focused — on writing Queen Charlotte, a prequel to Bridgerton based on one of the show’s breakout characters. Queen Charlotte, a real-life royal who was married to King George III, doesn’t appear in the Quinn novels, and Rhimes and the show’s creator, Chris Van Dusen, introduced her into the Bridgerton universe (she is played by Golda Rosheuvel).
As for how she got the spinoff idea … well, it’s funny, Rhimes says: “I will be blunt: it was when Ted picked up the phone and called me and said, ‘Why aren’t we doing a show about Queen Charlotte? And will you write it?’”
Eight seasons of Bridgerton — “and maybe more” — and Page will never appear as the duke again. Really? “I don’t think so!” Rhimes says. “And here is why. He is an enormous star now. As I like to say, the idea that we would write Regé to stand around in the background doesn’t make any sense at all to me. What would he do? is what I like to say.” — Variety.