Scandal, the Shonda Rhimes series of which ABC only ordered seven episodes, has been renewed for a second season. An important victory for the first network TV drama with a black female lead character since Get Christie Love in 1974*: Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope, a Washington DC "fixer."
But, as Emily Nussbaum points out in a piece for The New Yorker, "Olivia Pope's ethnicity is a non-issue; the show never refers to it."
In a way, it's refreshing that Scandal doesn't dwell on race: Doing so would force an "othering" of Olivia Pope, encouraging a divide, setting the stage for examining differences. A show with a black female lead doesn't have to be about being black. Ratings have been pretty good, especially compared to other new network shows; last week Scandal finished number one in its slot for the 6th consecutive week with women 18-49. The audience is there. Which begs the question: What took so long? For a black woman to be the lead? When it comes to TV, why have black women been trapped in the roles of mom, wife, best friend, sidekick or The Help?
Nussbaum argues that most modern sitcoms have at least one character of color, and continues:
What's lacking in current TV isn't black characters but all-black ensembles on channels other than BET or TBS-sitcoms like the eighties' and nineties' "A Different World" and "Living Single" and "The Cosby Show," or like the edgier array of seventies series, including "Good Times," in which black characters were able to fill every role: joker, princess, villain, nerd.
It's true that we have a serious dearth of black ensemble casts. And it's true that an ensemble cast allows for variety in types of black people (or Asian, or Latino), whereas when you just have one character of color in a show, that character usually somehow ends up representing an entire race or ethnicity. But having more black characters in general would contribute to an atmosphere in which diversity is the norm instead of an anomaly. Having all-black ensemble shows and all-white ensemble shows feels segregated, "separate but equal," and doesn't reflect the world I live in. I also reject the idea that there's something "inauthentic" about having a white character and a black character be best friends. Is my personal experience so vastly different from the the American life that a viewer can't process it? A good writer can make anything feel authentic, whether it's a zombie apocalypse or, shocker!, an interracial friendship.
However, Nussbaum is onto something when she points out:
In recent years, there's been a startling, largely unheralded boom of South Asian characters, thanks to writers and actors such as "The Office" 's Mindy Kaling, "Parks and Recreation" 's Aziz Ansari, and "Community" 's Danny Pudi, along with characters on "Smash," "The Big Bang Theory," "Whitney," and "The Good Wife." (At times I've wondered if this isn't a psychic workaround: is brown safer than black?)
The obvious answer is yes, brown must be "safer," less threatening, without any of the racial baggage and history — why else would this boom exist in a world where it's been 38 years since Get Christie Love? With any luck, Scandal, in addition to Mindy Kaling's new show, will open a door to an "authentic" world on TV: One in which a woman of color can be the center of her own story.
Primary Colors [New Yorker]
*There have been hour-long cable series with a black female lede, notably No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency and Hawthorne.