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Shonda Rhimes rules prime time by tapping into our lust for money, power, sex – and some shameless plot twists

Viola Davis in 'How to Get Away with Murder.' Credit: ABC

Shonda Rhimes is a new breed of TV star – a behind-the-scenes mastermind more famous than her shows, or the actors in them. It's gotten to the point where How to Get Away With Murder is unmistakably "the new Shonda Rhimes show," even though it's created by one of her protégés, and it stars Viola Davis, a two-time Oscar nominee. Rhimes profoundly understands America's fantasy life, which is why she rules the airwaves like no producer since the days when Aaron Spelling ruled the high seas aboard his Love Boat.

She's taken over ABC on Thursday nights with three hits back to back. It's a triple-shot ShondaNado: her original warhorse Grey's Anatomy, the White House slap-and-bone soap Scandal, and Murder, with Davis as a law professor who's into solving crimes and getting oral sex on the desk of her office. All three dramas show off Rhimes' flair for awesomely damaged heroines, her appetite for emotional violence, her narrative daring, her jones for pulp excess and shameless plot twists. Remember when Scandal jumped ahead a year, like, in midseason? Who does that? Nobody. Except Shonda.

Davis' professor Annalise Keating on How to Get Away With Murder is the prototypical Rhimes heroine: hyper-functional, professional, unflappable, capable of thinking six or seven moves ahead in any kind of power-struggle game. She has a husband at home, a Philly police detective on the side and a schedule full of murder cases no other lawyer would touch. She also has a posse of law-school students to help her crack cases and maybe hide the odd dead body. Her underlings have messy love lives and self-esteem issues, but they're onscreen mostly to remind us that everybody in sight is a cream puff compared to Davis. Taylor Swift is guaranteed to name a cat after her someday.

Rhimes dominates so completely that she still bewilders some antique minds. Most notoriously, a New York Times writer tried and failed to take her down with a bizarre racist rant. (It was the sort of nationwide WTF moment that would have seemed like a hilariously preposterous twist on Scandal – except it happened in real life. Go figure.)

Like Spelling, Rhimes built her empire around fearsome females. Spelling knew to keep the camera on the ladies, from Charlie's Angels to Dynasty to Melrose Place – show me a halfway interesting dude on a Spelling jam and I'll show you Bosley. Same goes for Rhimes. Her heroines keep getting more extreme, while the men in these stories – even the president of the United States – are toys, just beach balls that exist to be batted around by lionesses.

How to Get Away With Murder might have a suspiciously optimistic title – but Rhimes doesn't have much interest in any kind of happy ending. (Except maybe the kind that happens in a boiler room at the White House – or in professor Keating's case, on her desk.) Her characters pay for every disastrous decision. Rhimes lets her divas battle it out for what they want and doesn't flinch from the emotional gore. She's not afraid to let it bleed. Her characters give up on their needs, their self-respect, for a taste of what they desire. And they'll do evil deeds to get it. These women crave what they already know they can't keep – sex, power, love – but they grab it anyway. Get away with murder? Rhimes' brilliance is the way she refuses to let her characters get away with a thing.