Another One Bites the Dust? Not ABC's "Scandal"
How a show with a Black female lead avoided the fate of other primetime debuts
The network television dust has settled and “Scandal” – a new political thriller series from writer and executive producer Shonda Rhimes – is still standing. Making its debut on April 5, the series was a mid-season smash for ABC and the network has confirmed the show’s renewal, this time for a full season (about 13 episodes).
“Scandal” is glossy and sophisticated: from Olivia Pope’s sharply-tailored suits, slick pumps, and swanky DC bachelorette pad, to convincingly true-to-life set design, as seen during intimate conversations from inside the Oval Office and a ballroom dancing sequence at a glamorous State Dinner. Central to the cast is Pope, a tenacious thirty-something attorney who has built an impressive career and become a White House insider by virtue of her instinct (“My gut is never wrong,” she quips in the pilot episode); and her intellect (both her legal training and an extraordinary emotional IQ).
A former White House Communications Director, Pope now runs her own crisis management firm, applying her public relations acumen and keen understanding of human nature in the midst of various scandals affecting the world’s political elite. That this woman, played by the über-talented Kerry Washington, is African American is icing on the cake for those who have long-awaited a black female lead in a quality, network television drama.
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The conclusion of the first season and news of its renewal provide a timely opportunity for reflection and debate. How did this show avoid the fate of other primetime debuts like “Pan Am” and “GCB”, which despite heavy marketing and well-known actors, have officially been canceled? After all, a show starring an African American woman already presented Rhimes and her team with a unique challenge.
Though they are rarely even attempted, black female-driven dramas are typically among the first to be cast into the TV series graveyard. Attracting non-black viewership to such shows has historically been a struggle. Nevertheless, a thrilling season of great acting and soap opera-esque plot twists earned “Scandal” a tremendous following, and a place in ABC’s coveted primetime line-up.
In her New York Times review, Alessandra Stanley offered various explanations for the show’s cross-cultural appeal, drawing favorable comparisons between “Scandal” and other, already established network television series:
Like so many ABC series, from “Desperate Housewives” to “Revenge,” this is escapist fare with a feminine bent. And while there are moments that are downright laughable, “Scandal” has flair and even sophistication. Like “The Good Wife” on CBS, it’s a suspenseful, juicy romp that holds attention better than many a more high-minded show.
Realism is not a selling point of “Scandal,” and as Stanley notes, this is precisely why the show works. A politically-centered drama laced with sensational and overtly fictional elements is a welcome embellishment for Rhimes’ viewers. The in’s and out’s of the legal profession on most days and for most attorneys, are far less glamorous than even fifteen minutes in Pope’s riveting world. And people aren’t tuning in for an accurate portrayal of the nation’s weekly political round-up.
Entertainment, in its various incarnations, offers its audience an escape. With “Scandal,” Rhimes guides viewers to a delicious alternate reality where even the President of the United States -- without a Secret Service detail in tow – can visit his love’s apartment late one night and cuddle with her sweetly on the couch.
While a show can run the risk of alienating its audience with unrealistic storylines, “Scandal” achieves balance by featuring characters that are decidedly human and relatable. As she has managed to do successfully with at least two other shows (“Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice”), Rhimes’ skillful writing transcends preconceived notions or judgments by striking a universal human chord in her writing that many women, and men, can relate to. All of her female leads -- Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) and now Olivia Pope – are incredibly brilliant in their professional lives, but possess flaws that create formidable challenges for them in other areas. Each woman’s flaws allow the audience to penetrate their tough, one-dimensional exterior, exposing a soft, vulnerable underbelly.
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Stanley emphasizes Pope’s heroic-quality in her review: “Olivia has a team of devoted operatives, and most of them, like her, are lawyers by training who call themselves “gladiators in suits” and have adopted their mentor’s relentless mien…Of course Olivia Pope & Associates does punish villains and reward the deserving.” But as Brian Lowry notes in his review for Variety, her weaknesses are just as apparent: "‘My gut tells me everything I need to know,’ Olivia says early on. But the more time viewers spend with her, the less trustworthy her judgment becomes.”
This paradox of strength and weakness endears a character to its audience and is a formula that has worked in conventional pop culture for decades (think superheroes and their fumbling alter egos, e.g., Superman/Clark Kent). It is a theme now common in the portrayal of women on network television, and also visible on popular cable dramas such as Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) of Showtime’s new hit “Homeland,” and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) of AMC’s “Mad Men.” Like Pope, viewers are invited to admire and simultaneously, sympathize with each of them.
Kerry Washington, who spoke to the Huffington Post last month, is not oblivious to the relatable quality of Pope and her fellow “gladiators”:
I will say that one of the things that made me so happy was that the crew was coming to me with theories at the end of the season. The head of the grip department, the wardrobe designer, even craft services...People are invested and inspired in ways that you don't always get to be in this business.
Olivia Pope’s talent and intellect are inspiring. The fact that she wields these swords so effortlessly in the lives of others, and yet fails to utilize them in her own, is her tragedy. Her weakness. And viewers love her for it. Flaws and all.
Karen J. Francis is a media attorney, and a culture and entertainment writer living in New York City.