When TV and English collide – magic happens. Shonda Rhimes has proven this time and time again. American television producer, screenwriter, and author – she is the genius behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and the infamous How to Get Away with Murder. Need we say more? Whether you have watched any of her shows or not, what’s important to realise is that English is not restricted to the page.

I came to this realisation myself when I figured out a way to link the show Scandal with Shakespeare. Although centuries apart, it was material that could be used to engage Year 10 and make them understand that Shakespeare was not something completely inaccessible to them. In my endeavour to make them understand that Shakespeare wrote the way he did for poetic and dramatic purposes, I showed them a scene from Scandal where the leading lady, Olivia Pope, is being reprimanded by her father in a powerful scene that utilises repetition, speed and imagery seamlessly. Shonda Rhimes is known for her dramatic monologues which leave her audience wide-eyed, with goosebumps, holding their breath and wanting more. A monologue is a speech given by a single person, characterised by being quite lengthy.

Take a look at this monologue delivered by Mellie, the cheating president’s wife, in Scandal from the episode “Nobody Likes Babies” (2×13):

Cyrus, if Fitz goes public with this divorce, I will go nuclear. I will walk out in front of the press and I will explain to them that my marriage is over because while I was pregnant with his child, my husband was having an affair with Olivia Pope. I will leave him, and I will take his children with me. I will take every penny he has in the bank and every dollar of political capital that he has in this town. I will court feminist groups and mother groups and religious groups. I will bury him. And I will dance on his grave. And then? I will run for office.

Ahh! We can hear the tension oozing off these words. From a language analysis perspective – here’s what you could have picked up on:

  • The ironic use of the word ‘nuclear’ in this context as the setting is The White House which gives it more gravity.
  • Mellie uses anaphora with her vengeful repetition of ‘I will’ at the start of many of her sentences which creates the I-mean-business tone.
  • Mellie also uses many monosyllabic words which add to the sinister, determined tone that make us believe what she says. It is focused and clear, without the need for long, superfluous words.
  • At the end, she refers to burying her husband. She does not mean this literally (we hope) it is the imagery that this provokes that is important. Her dancing on his grave is synonymous with her victory and his ultimate defeat.

All that from under three minutes of dialogue…TV and English are compatible in this way. They both deal with characters, dialogue, narratives etc. which can be unpicked and dissected by any student. For the teacher, this provides great material to present students within the classroom to dispel the age-old myth that English is irrelevant and outdated. For the student, this provides learning opportunities outside of the classroom where they can apply their skills and open their eyes to the wealth of resources at their fingertips and to see how natural many of the processes in English (like analysis, comparison and evaluation to name a few) are.

So next time you are about to tune into your weekly show, enjoy it of course, but expand your viewing beyond entertainment…listen closer, look deeper and be amazed at what you can spot when you tune your ears to hear.