Kerry Washington, Viola Davis usher in new era of network TV’s black female lead

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

That Olivia Pope really ignited something. Since her debut on ABC April 5, 2012, television hasn’t been the same. And, now, the Kerry Washington icon-turning vehicle is the lead-in for Shondaland’s latest coup, How To Get Away with Murder, starring Viola Davis as law professor and legal mastermind Annalise Keating.

Talk about a Thursday night Scandal! Remember the last time network television ran two back-to-back dramatic series starring black actresses produced by a black woman in primetime? Big tip: it has never happened. Earlier this year, Teresa Wiltz asked “Does this mean that 2014 is the year of the black woman on TV?” in her appropriately titled OZY piece “The Year of Black Women on TV.”

If ABC is answering the question, the response could very well be a resounding “yes.” Ask folks like New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley, who began her ill-advised September 18 post-racial offering “Wrought in Rhimes’s Image” circling around the unprecedented event with “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman,’” and the resistance is very clear.

Oh never mind that Murder, like almost every other series on TV, even in this great age of black female engagement, was created by, gasp, another white male. The only difference here is that its acknowledged star is a black woman and, of course, that other “angry” black woman co-produces it. But who has time for those pesky facts?

True to character in a good way, other networks have attempted to duplicate Scandal’s success, in hopes of striking the ratings gold ABC has been mining. NBC tried with Meagan Good and Deception. CBS appears to have fared slightly better with this past summer’s Steven Spielberg-produced sci-fi series Extant, starring trailblazing Oscar winner Halle Berry. BET even got in on the action with Gabrielle Union as a capably problematic cable news star in Being Mary Jane. Angela Bassett didn’t star in FOX’s third season of American Horror Story: Coven, but she acted out enough to garner an Emmy nom. Nicole Beharie co-stars in last year’s breakout hit Sleepy Hollow on Fox that recently returned for sophomore duty. So why wouldn’t ABC take a page from its own game-changing playbook and not do it again with Murder and Rhimes, who still amazingly has Grey’s Anatomy on the air in what seems like its three-thousandth season?

Being in a historic moment doesn’t guarantee television success, however. Nor maxim cultural impact. Ultimate fixer Olivia Pope may be her lead-in, but that doesn’t mean that Davis’s Keating is working with the same ammo. Unlike Washington’s Pope, who has amazingly replaced Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw as television’s ultimate fashion orgasm, Davis is not quite the center of attention her top billing suggests. Keating’s eager minions, in contrast to Pope’s gladiators, work hard to overshadow her in the show’s debut. Whereas Olivia Pope struck awe, Keating appears to strike dread, and not in a particularly noble way. One young man in particular, Wes Gibbins, played by Alfred Enoch, recognizable from his ka-chinging Harry Potter role as Dean Thomas, rivals Davis in screen time, arguably banking even more scenes than she does. While it may be a win for young black male actors, Enoch isn’t helping ABC stick to the “black woman, hear me roar” script.

Even when Washington is not on the screen in Scandal, she is forever looming. Too often, Murder evokes an ensemble feel, not that “we can’t really go without Davis” promise that many articles, even Stanley’s unfortunate one, have proposed. Despite her many accomplishments, which include two Tonys, Davis is best known for her “You is kind. You is smart. You is important,” quotable from her Oscar-nominated role (her second actually following Doubt) as maid Aibileen Clark from 2011’s much-side-eyed (from this half of the racial divide at least) film The Help that nabbed her co-star Octavia Spencer that Oscar as the sassified maid Minny with a penchant for baking one unforgettable pie. Murder is not as bad as Disney promoting The Help as the stories of the black maids but not quite admitting that those stories were filtered through the white female protagonist. But it’s not as good as Davis really being the estrogen center of it all.

Last season, Scandal could have conceivably ended with Olivia and Jake jetting off to sandy paradise, leaving Fitz behind to be there emotionally for his wife and kids after losing their son, not to mention run a country. ABC has been so hushed about the season premiere that it’s hard to know if the thrill is back at full throttle. For Davis, Kerry Washington’s lead could be a blessing or a curse. Olivia Pope’s white coat is a hard act to follow. For history’s sake, let’s hope Analise Keating has more than that red leather outfit in her closet. Because we certainly need more “bad ass sistas” to join the party.