What’s my relationship with Shonda Rhimes’s shows? Let’s just say it’s complicated.
My love affair started many years ago when my mom and I became hooked on the soap-opera antics of “Grey’s Anatomy” — that is, before it digressed into a monotonous, millennial obsession. From there, I stopped visiting Shondaland for a while, because “Scandal” was deemed a little too, well, scandalous for my 12-year-old self. Yet, when I eventually got around to watching the suspense-filled series, I was left in awe of the bravado of Kerry Washington. Now even more recently, I have started binging “How to Get Away with Murder” and have become instantly infatuated with the mystery of it all, streaming it every chance I get.
Throughout the many good and not-so-good phases of Rhimes’s creations, her sign of involvement is undeniably recognizable. In a seemingly tired and repetitive fashion — or perhaps as a mark of sheer genius — her shows share the same tropes and themes across the board: a bold female lead, a group of attractive young professionals trying to prove their worth, dizzying love triangles, a lot of dead bodies and an epic soundtrack.
Let me be clear, though — Shonda Rhimes’s brand as one of the most powerful Black female producers is iconic, full stop. She’s gone on to build an empire by herself, with five shows airing or in development on ABC, a production deal with Netflix and fame emerging from four years of #TGIT watch parties. After all this time, it’s no secret that Rhimes has generated a television phenomenon, making nuanced characters and absurd subplots her showrunner staple.
But how much longer will the same old storyline be able to pack a punch? With “For the People,” Rhimes’s newest addition to the Shondaland family, it appears that her winning formula is beginning to lose its magic touch.
This time around, the latest ABC legal drama follows a crew of budding lawyers — three for the defense and three for the prosecution. As their personal and professional lives clash, they take on some of the most high-profile cases in the U.S., while also probably sleeping around and forming a list of enemies.
Judging its merit by a mere 60 minutes, “For the People” has nothing on the pilots of “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder.” For starters, its core group of actors are largely unconvincing, save for Regé-Jean Page (“Roots”) as the resident trouble maker and prosecutor Leonard Knox. Even then, most of the leads are undiscovered talents with a bright-eyed, fresh-faced quality to them that feels out of place on what should be a more gritty series. As defender Sandra Bell, the assumed female lead, Britt Robertson (“Girlboss”) does a satisfactory job of carrying the plot along, but lacks the gravitas necessary to even attempt to match Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, “Scandal”) or Annalise Keating (Viola Davis, “How to Get Away with Murder”).
That’s not saying, though, that “For the People” should even be compared to prior Shondaland royalty. In fact, an area that the show differs from its predecessors is in its portrayal of the judicial system as a whole. The presentation of what court is like — the behind-the-scenes look at being a lawyer and the overall stresses of the job — are not only authenticized, but emphasized.
Instead of some mysterious murder or dramatic affair stealing the spotlight of the show, experiences that could conceivably happen in the real world float to the forefront. In the first episode, Sandra is tasked with defending a teenage Muslim-American accused of planning to bomb the Statue of Liberty. OK, so maybe this example is a little far-fetched, but Sandra’s emotionally-backed defense of the innocent boy snaps us back to reality. On the flipside, an insider trading case pits lawyer couple Seth (Ben Rappaport, “Outsourced”) and Allison (Jasmin Savoy Brown, “The Leftovers”) against one another, literally. As Allison defends and Seth prosecutes, the pair constantly have to remind each other that their relationship can survive this — which is, of course, a tell-tale sign that it can’t.
It’s almost as if I can predict exactly what path “For the People” is likely to follow because its plot so far is extremely average. Maybe I was missing some of the Shonda Rhimes’s signature chaos and tragedy, or maybe the tropes are just getting out of touch. Either way, “For the People” and its fight for justice sparks an unimpressive sense of déjà vu and doesn’t add much to the Shondaland dynasty.