Shonda Rhimes' 'Scandal' presents blueprint for survival of blacks on network TV

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Shonda Rhimes’ ABC show Scandal just reached a significant benchmark – the network decided this week to renew the series for a second season. It’s an awesome first for Rhimes and starring actress Kerry Washington, this being the first renewed network TV drama with a black female lead since 1974.

Scandal succeeds because it’s a good show with a compelling story. Washington plays Olivia Pope, a political fixer vetting out sandal across the nation’s capital. Each episode revolves around Pope dissecting and resolving a complex case of scandal and intrigue, while also tending to a smoldering relationship with the president, with whom she once had an affair.

You can’t help but celebrate for Rhimes and Washington, to have a show led by women of color not only making it on air, but succeeding. It’s long overdue, and will hopefully make headway for other networks to create roles for black female leads (not just the trusty sassy sidekick).

Over 6.5 million viewers turned in to watch Scandal last week alone, and the show won the female 18-49 demographic in its slot for the 6th week in a row. Naturally, Kerry Washington is attracting more than just viewers who look like her. Olivia Pope appeals to such a diverse audience because she appeals to everyone. Though her character is African-American, nothing is actually made of her “blackness” in the show at all.

As a character, Olivia Pope could be played by anyone: she’s a poised and focused young woman who is damn good at what she does. In truth, network executives probably would have tried to cast Pope as a white woman if it wasn’t for the fact that Olivia Pope is based upon a real woman — crisis management expert Judy Smith, who is, by the way, a black woman.

But does Scandal succeed precisely because we never have to deal with Pope’s blackness? A large part of the series hinges on Pope’s former affair with the president, who is, naturally, a white man. And yet nothing is made of this very high-profile interracial relationship, nor whatever cultural ramifications it may have. It’s just a normal White House love affair, nothing special to see here.

Shonda Rhimes is a show-runner of the short who likes to portray a colorfully diverse and integrated world, and often sidesteps issues of race within her series. I can appreciate this sentiment, and her creative right to cast her shows in a seemingly post-racial world. As many white-washed shows that exist on network TV, it’s refreshing to watch a show where diversity is a norm and not a token effort. And Rhimes’ creativity has been rewarded, catapulting her career to become one of the top show runners on TV.

But is Rhimes’ Pope a sign of things to come? That network shows can feature actors of color as long as we never have to address their ethnicity? Somehow it wouldn’t feel like as great of an accomplishment if all our TV stars of color succeeded through ethnically neutral roles. Race doesn’t have be addressed in heavy-handed after school special episodes, but it can be dealt with in the small conscious and subconscious ways we all interact with everyday.

Eventually, I hope Scandal will address Olivia Pope’s blackness. Though race is not a defining character trait, it is a factor; real-life fixer Judy Smith no doubt had to address her blackness at a point or two throughout her career. Olivia Pope is a woman of color, and that is what helps make this character great, a truth that shouldn’t be avoided.

Follow Kia Miakka Natisse on Twitter at @miakka_natisse