LAST SPRING, I BECAME one of the people who went a little bit crazy when “Scandal” started on ABC. This was a big deal for two reasons. The first was that the star of “Scandal” is Kerry Washington. Washington’s the sort of woman who deserves better parts than the assortment of girlfriends, wives, and temptresses she has played.
With some actors, you spend so much time hoping for the best that it becomes a trial — is this the show-movie-book-record that does “it”? I just wanted whatever I was rooting for to happen for Washington — for the whole world to love her brainy approach to sexiness as much as her obsessives do.
“Scandal” is about Olivia Pope, a Beltway fixer who rights a new wrong almost every week. Men desire her, women admire her, and she is never, ever wrong or self-doubting or less than astonishingly hot. She’s legal and moral perfection. This brings me to the second thing that was a big deal about “Scandal.” Washington is black. This would make her the rare such woman to carry a prime-time show. You didn’t need to see one second of “Scandal” to be happy for Washington but sad that this milestone was newsworthy. And yet it was.
The country has been spending the last month analyzing the fine print of the presidential election, how white males’ share of the electorate shrank while nonwhite males’ share grew. To people who study this sort of news, it was a decisive shift. How different the country looks, feels, and sounds now compared to even 10 years ago. The election has made that difference, and the shifts associated with it, feel inexorable.
Some white conservatives freaked out and bemoaned the end of a traditional America. Some white liberals cheered the diversification of America, which sounds a lot less activisty and less actionable and more inclusively, self-congratulatorily Whole Foods corporate than “affirmative action.” Plus, who does it help in the end? In most cases, championing diversity is not the same as installing the infrastructure to attract smart, qualified people of color and hold onto them.
Anyway, in the days after the election, both sides did their respective lamenting and partying on news shows, and both got ahead of themselves. They need to go to more movies and watch more TV. Whatever this feared/heralded browner America is, two major realms of popular culture don’t accurately reflect it. Both media are still pretty white. That’s why “Scandal” seemed like a big deal, and why it feels remarkable that NBC has expanded its backstage-musical musical, “Smash,” to make way for Jennifer Hudson and built its new thriller “Deception” around Meagan Good.
There are lots of brown people and some gays mixed in straight white ensembles. It was also nice of CBS to turn Lucy Liu into Watson for its new procedural drama “Elementary,” but I would have been more impressed if she had been made Sherlock Holmes instead.
Generally, TV is crawling forward with its assortment of token characters, which means it is still a landscape in which people of color are rarely seen talking to each other. That is why Comedy Central’s sketch show “Key & Peele” feels like a true revelation — it’s two black males having a conversation about America, which is more interesting than Kerry Washington cleaning up Washington, D.C.’s messes.
As it turns out, “Scandal” is a terrible show — the talking is too fast, the plots too thin. Ironically, that badness, as watchable as it is, feels important, too. Its creator, Shonda Rhimes, who also gave us “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” is one of the most powerful people in television, and is also a black woman. Maybe the real measure of change in the entertainment industry is not whether a black woman this successful continues to succeed but whether she’s permitted to fail.