Written by Jason Parham (@nonlinearnotes)
When Scandal, ABC’s polarizing political thriller, premiered in spring 2012 it placed a black woman at the center of a primetime drama on a major network for the first time in decades. I’ve written elsewhere about television’s current landscape and its lack of cultural and class diversity, but Shonda Rhimes, the show's creator and possibly the most influential female showrunner in history (she’s also behind the mega-hit Grey’s Anatomy and the recently ended Private Practice), is known for creating worlds unlike anything else on television. Oprah best captured Rhimes approach when speaking about her in Time: “[she] validates our story—the human story of faults and fears, loneliness and loss, triumphs and often short-lived joys. She gets us—all of us.”
Scandal follows Olivia Pope, a former White House press aide who runs a “crisis management” firm (Pope is known as D.C.’s best “fixer”) as she navigates her relationship with Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant. Fitz also happens to be the president, and it's later revealed that he secured his position as commander-in-chief, albeit unknowingly, with Olivia’s help (a voter-rigging plotline is introduced at the second season's onset; Olivia, working with the president’s chief of staff and his wife, a Supreme Court justice, and a brass oil tycoon conspired to steal the election).
To have Rhimes tell it, Scandal’s D.C. is a post-racial fantasia where color is a non-issue. This has become the show’s greatest triumph, but also its Achilles’ heel.
I came to Scandal midway through its first season—via the recommendation of a friend—thinking I might appreciate its roller-coaster narrative and Rhimes’ colorful milieu. I watched rapt, like most viewers, every Thursday as the plot zigzagged, as quick-jawed villains were introduced, slimy politicians schemed against one another, and assassination attempts were carried out. Through the twists and turns a clear thread emerged: the yearning to be with the one you love when, for whatever reason, you can’t. Olivia and Fitz’s red-hot affair forms the backbone of the show, and makes for entertaining, if sometimes cheesy, melodrama.
Early critiques of Scandal, at least among circles I navigated, dealt with Rhimes’ decision to, as one friend put it, make Olivia the president’s jump-off. For the first time in decades a black woman occupied primetime and, despite her many successes, she was still nothing more than a mistress. I never bought into this thinking completely. Rhimes has a careful eye for introducing characters that are wholly human—naïve and bull-headed, wonderfully imperfect. Olivia was no different.
What’s most interesting, then, about Olivia’s and Fitz’s relationship is how she, a black woman, and he, a white man, never discuss race. To have Rhimes tell it, Scandal’s D.C. is a post-racial fantasia where color is a non-issue. This has become the show’s greatest triumph, but also its Achilles’ heel.
That Rhimes is able to lift the burden of race—the obligation to continually focus on one’s particular cultural experiences—from week to week is an impressive feat.
“I don’t think that we have to have a discussion about race when you’re watching a black woman who is having an affair with the white president of the United States,” Rhimes said in a recent New York Times Magazine profile. “The discussion is right in front of your face.”
But I’m not so certain it is.
For all of Scandal’s compelling theatrics, it’s an easy, if not completely passive, watch—the show's wiped clean of the muddy, complicated history of America (which is even more strange for a show set in the nation’s capital). And considering its ever-increasing popularity, Rhimes finds herself in an interesting position. As an all-powerful showrunner in Hollywood (did I mention she’s a black woman?) who has a primetime hit (starring, that’s right, a black woman), how could you not make your audience contend with that reality? That Olivia’s blackness is rarely actualized over the course of an entire season remains a mystery to me.
Which was why last night felt so special. During the finale, Fitz, speaking of a possible post re-election public relations strategy (he planned to divorce his wife and move Olivia into the White House), said: “My relationship with Olivia is going to spark a real dialogue about race in this country and it is going to blow the Republican party wide open, and let some light and air into some places that haven’t seen change in far too long.” It was a rare moment in Shondaland, one where the racial politics of her fictional D.C. mirrored the reality of our time. The moment seemed tangible, even if only for a minute—its significance rooted in Rhimes’ subtle nod to Olivia’s self-awareness (the PR strategy Fitz spoke of was Olivia’s plan).
When Scandal returns next season I can’t say for certain we’ll see the show confront race through a more honest lens, but I’ll be watching all the same. Rhimes has a real opportunity to shift the landscape of television for the better. Maybe it’s time she borrow a lesson from Olivia’s playbook and take the risk.