Like many, I eagerly anticipated the premiere of the show Scandal. A beautiful, black woman who is a power player in D.C., it had me chomping at the bit. With all of the strong television shows for women (Homeland on Showtime, The Good Wife on CBS – although, I don't know why the woman of color on that show has to bed everything with legs), I was hopeful. There has been no shortage of shows where white women get to dangle their brilliance, their prowess, their wardrobe. So, I was like a child on Christmas Eve. Not since 1974 has a TV drama had a black female lead character. And, this is a far cry from Get Christie Love. Certainly, we are well beyond the days of, "You're under arrest, Sugah!" Or, are we?
Before you go sucking your teeth, rolling your eyes and screaming to the heavens, "why can't black people leave "successful" black folks alone?", hear me out. I think there is an opportunity here to encourage the writers of the show to be bold and courageous. I am rooting for the show to succeed, but, the creators have to be fearless and let Olivia Pope dominate.
The first show left me a bit dizzy. I tend to tune out when the dialogue is coming at you like rapid fire in an inner city war zone. But, I understand, in the first episode, there was a lot of exposition to cover. I forgave it. I checked in with my Actor sisters to hear their thoughts. They weren't so taken with Kerry Washington, but, I was eager to see her chops. And she is captivating. The show is designed to showcase her beauty. That is achieved without question. Considering we've spent the majority of the time studying every crevice of Kerry Washington's face, we can all agree that she has a face sculpted by the gods.
And the second episode, when Olivia Pope (KW) is on the park bench "schooling" Amanda Tanner, KW showed her chops. She descended on Tanner like a drone missile. I haven't yelled at the TV like that, since Michael Jordan obliterated the basketball court. In that moment, Olivia Pope established her skill set, her power, her uncompromising commitment to her work, her character, her grace under fire and it was stunning! Stunning! There was no finger waving, no back and forth head motion, no pulling of weaves; it was pure and uncompromising intelligence. She wasn't anyone's (basketball) wife, she was in complete possession of herself. And dressed to the nines while doing it!
I was even pleased with the delivery of the twists and turns toward the end of each episode. The fierce leftist politics. Yes, they are. The complex storyline of the black woman in love with the republican president. There was a lot of information being delivered here, and Ms. Shonda Rhimes was not waving any race banner. That made it all the more engaging. Olivia Pope is vulnerable, caring, wise and sharp – these are the black women I know. These characters have reached the upper echelons and are consumed with the things that get us out of bed every morning; love, work and passion.
So, what went wrong?! I was not a fan of Ms. Shonda Rhimes prior to Scandal. However, I am happy for all of her success. I respect her intelligence and (TV) acumen. And not in the way that people praise Tyler Perry. They condemn his work but laud over him because of his achievements. I believe in quality execution. And if it isn't there, I don't care how many gazillions of dollars you make, I will not curtsy in your general direction. I don't simply support because it's black. It's got to be well done. Ms. Rhimes is a bit too 'soap opera-esque' for my taste. The 'soap opera' aesthetic of Grey's Anatomy leaves me cold. That style undermines the strength of the characters (women, especially) and renders them sheepish.
Having gone through NYU's graduate film program, one comes out with a very sharp, critical eye. I'm fortunate to do script analysis for private clients. One thing I note with my female clients, is that it's hard for us to keep a woman character as lead. Usually, the female will partner with a male (either in work or love) and the male will eventually become the lead or takeover the storyline. It is very difficult for women to keep a strong, female character at the center of the story. This seems to be the case here. By the second to last episode, I did not know if 'the president' or Olivia Pope was the lead. It's a very subtle dynamic. 'The president' took the lead in their interactions. He asked for 'the minute'. He showed up at her house. He was making the choices. The lead has to make the choices, otherwise, they become a 'passive' character. Olivia Pope, who started off the series fully in charge, had become a doe-eyed mistress. How did we get here?!
By the last episode, Olivia Pope was grabbed on the arm by "the President", read by the first lady and barely uttered a word. Kerry Washington did what she could with what she was given. But, I didn't know how much longer KW would be able to pull off the teary-eyed, emoting in lieu of dialogue. There were a few moments in the last episode that were truly troubling. When they were trying to clean up Gideon's apartment, Olivia Pope grabs the phone and alerts the police. Huck (played by Guillermo Diaz, who wore a ridiculous wig in a previous episode, that would have worked in Get Christie Love) then alerts everyone that the cell phone had not been recovered, undermining Olivia's decision to call the police. It's a simple moment that spoke volumes.
In the season finale, "the president" walks in and the "first lady" schools him on how they will proceed. And this came after FLOTUS schooled Olivia Pope. This was particularly demeaning. "The president" enters, we see the first lady and then Olivia Pope quietly stands up and has her head bowed in the corner of the frame. I'm like… what in the hell is this? This woman has gone from fierce control to utter shame. That is the series climax?! I'm sorry, marching around in a nice wardrobe with an overwrought soundtrack and the security guard saying how impressive you are, gives the illusion of power. Olivia Pope was severely underwritten. The show went off the rails, not quite back to the days of Sally Hemings but close. Perhaps, a friend explained, the ratings weren't great, so the creators put the "white characters" at the center. Not sure. Whatever happened, they have to fix it. Ms. Rhimes has given us great expectations. And we want Olivia Pope to reign supreme.
1 – A support system for Olivia Pope outside of her office (a family member, sister, brother, old college roommate… someone that she can commune with beyond the office), open up her world. This will give us a sense of her inner life, what sustains her, what motivates her.
2 – Let Ms. Pope control the interactions with her lovers. Don't allow her to be a woman of straw that bends in whatever direction her lover needs.
3 – Invite us into her background (childhood, teenage years).
4 – Take her out of the U.S. (always wonderful to see a woman abroad, out of her element, but, in control).
5 – Squash the relationship with the president. It's done. It's not that interesting or believable. We will learn much more about her as she attempts relationships with other, less powerful, men.
6 – For me, please do something with the black male "gladiator in a suit" (what happened to that phrase, anyway?). His fast talking, few minutes of screen time has become an annoyance. I know the brother has range, so slow his talk down and give him an interesting storyline. We have experienced everyone's story but his.
7 – Be fearless. Let Olivia Pope run the show. Don't let the show run her.
The show is exciting, tantalizing, intriguing but, in need of a stronger lead. Pope can be etched in stone with Kojak, Columbo and Tony Soprano if the creators stop pandering toward what America will accept. Imagine – more Barbara Jordan, less Sally Hemings.
Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya.