Alum Writes Juicy Romances, Fast-Paced Plots for Hit Show
By Alex Stoller
The graduate-school diploma that Shonda Rhimes handed Zahir McGhee ’02 in 2009 at the University of Southern California didn’t just represent the completion of his film studies. It was his ticket into ShondaLand.
He’d turned his Disney/ABC Writing Fellowship under the popular TV series creator into a full-time screenwriting job for two of her steamy, soapy dramas, “Private Practice” and “Scandal.” Six years later, he’s writing for every episode of the over-the-top, D.C.-centric show—including next week’s much-anticipated finale.
At 9 p.m. this Thursday (May 14), he’ll follow his usual routine of making himself a cocktail, watching the show he helped craft—and tracking the flurry of breathless tweets that pop up in real time as viewers wait anxiously to find out if Jake Ballard will live, what Olivia Pope’s father will do and if David Rosen will pursue the case against B613.
“Having that interaction with the fans is something that you don’t always get,” he says about his show, one of the top 10 most tweeted-about. “You can really get what the fans think about the show.” (McGhee tweets back from @Zterps.)
He’s come a long way from South Jersey, but his childhood is never far from his mind, even as he writes for “Scandal.” “The Lawn Chair,” the episode that aired March 6, featured a young boy gunned down by a cop in a tough neighborhood.
“In the early ’90s there were a lot of movies that came out where it was young black guys who were from the same parts of the country that I’m from, writing and directing their own movies and getting to tell their own stories,” says McGhee. “I said, ‘People like me can do this.’”
He studied government and politics at UMD, thinking he would go into law and perhaps a career on Capitol Hill. He joined fraternity Sigma Alpha Mu and says he still hears his brothers’ voices when he writes: “It was like being around a hundred Seinfields—it was great.”
But after graduating and studying for his LSATs while processing mortgage loans, he decided to pursue a different dream: film. Initially, he started graduate school at the University of Miami with aspirations of teaching film. But when some of his professors got hold of one of his scripts, they advised him to move to L.A. and write for a living.
He took their advice and enrolled at the University of Southern California while working as film coordinator for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Image Awards. The job introduced him to big names in the industry. Tim McNeal, ABC’s vice president of talent development, told him to apply for the Disney fellowship, where he could become a beat writer for a show, get paid a stipend, gain professional training and attend classes. It sounded like a good opportunity after a year of hearing “no” after “no” from shows including “30 Rock.”
“Writing is hard,” he says. “You’re putting yourself out there on a page. Not being understood is difficult and you experience a lot of rejection.”
Disney paired McGhee with “Private Practice,” a spinoff of “Grey’s Anatomy.” There, he achieved the top goals of any fellow in the program: He wrote his own episode and got hired, landing him a desk a few doors down from Rhimes.
Then, after a year, “I’m at a table meeting, and Shonda came to me and said, ‘We need to have a conversation.’ And I’m thinking that conversation is I’m going to be fired,” he says.
Instead, he got bumped up to her newest hit, where he now writes and revises “Scandal” scripts and works with the directors and actors to create the juicy romances, fast-paced plots and blow-your-mind twists the viewers love.
“I don’t know why people like watching TV and being super-anxious while they watch it, but somehow that makes them want to come back,” he says.
The character of Olivia Pope helps too, he says, because she’s a beautiful black protagonist defined not just by her looks (and fabulous style), but by power, intelligence and strength.
After he’s done telling Pope’s story, he hopes to follow in the footsteps of Wes Anderson and John Singleton, writing and directing his stories through his own independent films.
But for now? “As a cultural force, I can’t imagine anything more exciting than working for Shonda Rhimes at this moment in time,” he says.
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