Bringing comedy back — while tackling thoughtful themes — is the showrunner’s goal at Grey’s.
When she took the reins as showrunner for Grey's Anatomy two years ago, Krista Vernoff admits, she didn't quite know what she was getting into.
"It was like getting the keys to the candy store, and I expected a joyful challenge," she says. "I knew that with great responsibility comes tremendous pressure — but I was surprised at just how much pressure there was."
Vernoff, who had been head writer and executive producer at the long-running ABC megahit in its early years, had some big changes in mind — namely, returning the show to its early romantic comedy roots. Coming off five seasons writing for Showtime's dark comedy Shameless, she says, "My comic teeth were sharpened, and I wanted to put the fun back in Grey's, which had become a much darker, heavy drama."
Changing course wasn't easy. "Everyone was game, but it was a big job getting people to flex their comedy muscles again," she recalls. "The tone, lighting, camera work — basically everything— had to change. It was like turning a cruise ship around."
There were also painful decisions to be made, including letting go series stars Jessica Capshaw and Sarah Drew, a move that triggered a huge — and hurtful — backlash on Twitter.
"I really wasn't prepared for that," Vernoff says. She was grateful when Grey's creator Shonda Rhimes "saw my pain and told me to stay off Twitter. She'd been through the same kind of outcry and had to learn how to tune it out. It was my time to learn. But I'm okay now."
Indeed, aside from a recent turn in the director's seat this season that she calls both "invigorating and mind-bendingly terrifying" — it's been smooth sailing since.
Vernoff, an outspoken activist in the #MeToo movement, has steered Grey's on a dual course, mixing rom-com with serious themes. "Advancing the role of women is important to me, and as showrunner I get to integrate my activism with my art. I get to tell female-centric stories and address overtly feminist issues on a major network program every week."
Representation and diversity also matter, both on camera and off. Women make up less than a quarter of members in both the Writers Guild and Directors Guild. For people of color, that percentage is in the teens.
But behind the scenes at Grey's, "It's 90 percent female," Vernoff says. "Most of our directors, writers and department heads are women. It's a real matriarchy. Of course, we have talented men, too, but they love and benefit from it. This is a collaborative, happy place to work."
At the end of the day, it's all about the message. "With such a big audience worldwide, we have a platform to impact the planet," she says. "I put what I want to see on the show and the words I want to hear in the characters' mouths. Of course, we want to tell dramatic, emotionally interesting stories — but we want them to be better for the world."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2019