The New York Times has an article on Scandal, a show that has slowly built itself into one of the more solid performers on ABC and another success for creator Shonda Rhimes. The author, Tanzina Vega, says that Kerry Washington is “the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years,” the last being Theresa Graves on Get Christie Love (the networks’ few attempts, along with the Shaft TV series, to cash in on blaxploitation). Of course J.J. Abrams’ flop Undercovers a couple of years ago had two black leads, though neither of them were originally from America. And NBC’s new show Deception stars Meagan Good, making it look like a trend – if you assume two shows make a trend. But while we’re waiting to see if Deception survives to a second season, Kerry Washington on Scandal is a genuine breakthrough: there have been hardly any successful U.S. drama series with black leads, and black female leads are so rare that Vega has to go back to Diahann Carroll in Julia, which was a half-hour comedy.
Scandal is succeeding because it’s a fun, crazy show that deserves to succeed. I think it may have succeeded Revenge as the fun ABC soap to watch once Revenge seemed to lose its way in the second season. And also, like The Office and other shows, it shows the advantage of casting someone at just the right time. After the show started, Washington appeared in Django Unchained, which turned out to be the biggest hit of Quentin Tarantino’s career and may have had the effect of increasing Washington’s profile as a TV star. (Of course Washington had played major roles in movies before that, but her movie career wasn’t huge, which is one of the reasons why she was available for TV.) TV still has an inferiority complex to movies in that way: a big movie can do more to boost your TV career than a TV show can do to boost a movie career. But one of the best things a show can do is get someone under contract just before they get a major role in a hit movie. Signing someone after the movie comes out, like all the networks are trying to do with actors from Bridesmaids, doesn’t have the advantages of getting Melissa McCarthy before Bridesmaids, or Steve Carell before The 40 Year-Old Virgin, or Kerry Washington before Django. A movie is the best possible publicity tool for a show that already exists; for a new show, it’s not quite as effective.
And as Vega notes, the show is very popular among African-American audiences, catching on with a demographic that is woefully under-served on all the major U.S. networks. Not that the shows that succeed this way are always the ones networks would expect: the Washington Post reported last year that a show that gets a lot of strength from its appeal to African-American viewers is American Dad.
One hopes that Scandal‘s success will change things just a little bit for networks unsure about whether audiences will accept a black dramatic lead, and particularly a female lead – we can all think of actresses like Khandi Alexander who should have been playing leads and spent most of the ’90s and ’00s playing sidekicks. There is no way that Scandal on its own “represents a new era of postracial television,” even if you count Deception as part of a new trend, but anything that shows even a slight reduction in network timidity is a welcome development. And since TV networks are always trying to judge the mood of the world based on the latest hit movie, maybe the success of Django, along with the TV success of Washington, will lead to a few more actors and actresses getting some roles; we talk a lot about the disappearance of the black sitcom in the U.S., but at least something has to exist before it can disappear. The drama with black actors getting top billing, on the other hand, is still waiting for its day in TV.