Did ‘Scandal’ success propel Alfre Woodard into presidential role on ‘State of Affairs’?

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Alfre Woodard

Alfre Woodard

Numerous black actors have played the president of the United States over the years on film and television, including Morgan Freeman, Dennis Haysbert, Richard Pryor and Jamie Foxx. But with a new pilot called State of Affairs, NBC is offering up the first black woman POTUS.

Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning actress Alfre Woodward will play President Roberta Payton in the drama that is being billed as a cross between Scandal and The West Wing. Woodard is joined by Katherine Heigl, whose character is a CIA operative who does daily debriefings with the president. Heigl’s character is also the ex-girlfriend of President Payton’s late son.

No further details about the pilot are available, but just the fact that a major network’s drama will star a black woman as the leader of the free world is a significant milestone in how black women are depicted in pop culture.

Scandal, flaws and all, was met with much fanfare when it debuted in 2012 partly because Kerry Washington’s power-wielding, smartly dressed lead character was a welcomed departure from prevailing depictions of black women in popular reality television and Tyler Perry creations.  The show has since gone on to receive Emmy nominations, countless magazine spreads for its star and the social media buzz for Scandal is unmatched.

So, it’s not shocking that NBC has a pilot in the works that it is billing as a Scandal/West Wing hybrid.  Political dramas have a proven track record in primetime television and Scandal’s ratings success with a black woman lead shows that America is ready to see powerful black women in charge at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

One consistent criticism of Scandal concerns the main character Olivia Pope’s love life. She might be able to handle any sticky situation that is presented to her at work, but Pope basically melts into romantic-hyperbole-blubbering butter as soon as her married lover is in her vicinity.

If the State of Affairs pilot is picked up, it will be interesting to see how President Payton’s love life is written.  Is she a widow? If she has a husband, what is his race? Is she faithful? Often times, fictional presidents are presented as having complicated love lives, but for a black woman in that position, could she afford to have such messiness?

I’m thinking that the title State of Affairs is a bit of a play on words and the show will likely feature plenty of extramarital flings. With Woodard and Heigl as the named leads, the show appears to be following the Scandal (Shonda Rhimes) formula of having a diverse cast. This would be a win-win for the network.

Black women viewers have propelled the ratings success of numerous shows that cater to that demographic (Being Mary Jane, Scandal, Tyler Perry’s Own shows, etc) and shows that  prominently feature black women, but target a larger audience (American Horror Story: The Coven) have also enjoyed ratings gold.

Slowly, but surely, networks seem to be figuring out that diversity is not something to have just to avoid lawsuits or the appearance of racial bias. People want to see full, fleshed-out characters. Those characters can be on the dramatic side of course, and make extreme decisions, but the viewing audience always likes a taste of reality/logic/something familiar.

We, black women, exist and we like to see ourselves on the small screen represented as fully realized, three-dimensional people.  Hopefully, State of Affairs will be a well-done pilot that turns into a high-quality, well-written, well-acted addition to our primetime viewing schedules.

Follow Demetria Irwin on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope and connect with her on Facebook.