Tuesday night’s season premiere of Gabrielle Union’s Being Mary Jane made a major splash on social media as the show kicked off to an impressive ratings start.
BET’s first scripted drama follows Union as Mary Jane — a single, successful black female whose professional prowess clashes with a personal life that is in constant disarray. She’s beautiful, intelligent and strong – but her weaknesses are exposed when she falls in love with a married man.
If the story line sounds familiar, it’s because it shares many similarities with Kerry Washington’s role as the quick-witted political fixer Olivia Pope on ABC’s hit drama Scandal. That show, which has quickly amassed a large following of some of TV’s most dedicated fans, features Washington in a part that was unlike any other leading black female character on the small screen — until now.
Due to its considerable success, Scandal has influenced the portrayal of African-American women and the roles they play on TV. Washington was the first black actress to headline a prime-time network drama series in over 30 years, which has undoubtedly paved the way for more shows with leading black female characters like Being Mary Jane.
Union has publicly acknowledged that she had auditioned for the role of Pope and although she didn’t land the part, she was inspired to search for similar casting opportunities.
“I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, these roles are out there. It showed me that you don’t have to settle,” Union told the Associated Press. “Luckily, the success of her and the show bred more work. Just from the audition process, I knew that I couldn’t go backward.”
Instead, she snagged the role of Mary Jane — a career-oriented TV news host and a far cry from the thankless girlfriend roles she’s played for years.
Aside from the comparisons between the show’s protagonists, the strategic social media approach behind the marketing and engagement of Scandal and Being Mary Jane can be credited for their success.
Live-tweeting on Twitter is an approach both Washington and the show’s creator Shonda Rhimes, along with other cast members, have embraced to drive viewership and build momentum behind the show. While they are not the first or only TV stars to take on this tactic, it’s never become as identifiable with a program as it has with the ABC show.
According to Nielson ratings, the season 3 premiere of Scandal on October 3rd was the most-tweeted about program on television that week amassing over 700,000 tweets. This activity likely contributed to Scandal becoming that week’s top-rated drama on network television and the no. 1 show among black viewers.
However, it seems as though Mara Brock-Akil, the creator of Being Mary Jane, and her cast are poised to be potential competitors for that title after the July airing of the show’s pilot attracted over 4 million viewers.
Akil, along with Union, aimed to up the ante Tuesday night when they took the same approach as the Scandal cast by live-tweeting the broadcast of the official series debut.
— Mara Brock Akil (@MaraBrockAkil) January 8, 2014
— Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu) January 8, 2014
#BeingMaryJane quickly became the no. 1 trending topic on Twitter as tweets reached over 1.7 million people. It ranked third on the top 5 list of most-tweeted about shows, tallying in below ABC’s Pretty Little Liars and Ravenswood.
Overall, the show’s premiere attracted over five million viewers and was the biggest original drama series debut on all cable for the 2013-14 season.
The momentum behind Scandal has been building steadily thanks to millions of loyal viewers who have tuned into all three seasons of the drama-filled series. Meanwhile, Being Mary Jane is only just beginning. Still, its focus on sex, relationships and difficulty in finding security are an appealing mix for its predominately black female audience.
“Black audiences aren’t used to seeing such a fierce, take-charge character who looks like them on television,” journalist Kevin D. Thompson told the Maynard Institute. “Olivia Pope is the ideal for so many black women, a successful career woman who not didn’t just reach the so-called ‘glass ceiling,’ but smashed through it.”
It may be premature, but the same case could be made about Union’s character in Being Mary Jane. Thus far, the show has stepped into some of the same footprints Scandal has left in its wake, leaving it with much potential for a prosperous future.
Follow Lilly Workneh on Twitter @Lilly_Works