The fallout continues from New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley’s essay on purported “angry black woman” Shonda Rhimes, with the Times’ own public editor calling it “astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.” Stanley’s own response demonstrates the same kind of cloistered arrogance that allowed her to write the article in the first place — “If making that connection between the two offended people, I feel bad about that,” isn’t even “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” — but the responses from elsewhere have been many, and some of them are among the best writing ever on Rhimes and the her considerable place in the culture.
In a column from last week that Time has finally brought out from behind its paywall, James Poniewozik observes that Rhimes’ “Scandal” “sometimes seems to be composed less of episodes than of individual WTF? moments,” which may be one reason why there’s so little writing of substance on one of TV’s most popular shows. “Rhimes’ aesthetic is acceleration — and not just in that the plots are fast and crazy but that they’re always getting faster and crazier.”
“How to Get Away With Murder,” which premieres on Thursday in “Scandal’s” former 10 p.m. time slot, was not created by Rhimes but Peter Nowalk, giving the lie to Stanley’s now-amended contention that the show’s protagonist was modeled in her image. But given that Nowalk, a veteran of “Gray’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” has been a resident of ShondaLand since 2008, it’s hardly a stretch to connect the shows, which is why the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum finds herself (just barely) defending the good ideas mixed in with Stanley’s inaccuracies and rampant overstatement.
As Nussbaum notes, “Scandal” is a breed apart from “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” which she calls “the TV analogue to chick lit.”
“Scandal” is built on a different blueprint: its romance isn’t romantic but crushing and sadomasochistic…. As Stanley suggests, “Scandal” has had a serious influence on the rest of TV, not merely by breaking the taboo of having a black female heroine — and thus helping to lay the groundwork for diversity in other places, like “Saturday Night Live” — but also by showing that a mainstream drama can throw its elbows, speeding up plot to the point that viewers are left gasping. “Scandal” is a melodrama, certainly, but it’s also a thought experiment, one that benefits from the freedom that lies within so much of genre fiction, including science fiction and fantasy: freed from realism, the show can perform rough, wild meditations on the meaning of power, interrogating, among other subjects, race, gender, and sexuality, both overtly and implicitly.
“How to Get Away With Murder” is very much in the “Scandal” mode, although Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating has little in common with Olivia Pope beyond her gender and, broadly speaking, the color of her skin. (Stanley’s assertion that the dark-skinned Davis was “less classically beautiful” than light-skinned Kerry Washington set off a flurry of hashtags on Friday afternoon.) To her law students, Annalise is an imposing, slightly terrifying figure — imagine John Houseman’s intimidating “Paper Chase” prof in a leather jacket the color of dried blood — and unlike Olivia, her needs seem more sexual than romantic; you don’t picture her pining after a married man, or being wooed with the promise of a house in Vermont. But neither one of them is what one could reasonably call “angry”; as Willa Paskin pointed out at Slate, the appropriate (and even more incendiary) word is “scary.”
What these great pieces on Rhimes have in common is that, like her shows, they deal with race — a subject thrust to the fore by Stanley’s article — but not only with race. It’s a balance NPR’s Linda Holmes wrestled with as she geared up to interview Rhimes in front of an audience last Friday, the evening after Stanley’s article was published. As Rhimes told her, she has worked on her shows to make sure that no character suffers from being “the only one” — the only black character, the only gay character, and so on — which frees the writers, the actors and the show itself from the burden of having to treat that character as a categorical representative. Rhimes herself is, as Holmes notes, an “only one” herself — the black female executive in television with a legitimate claim on being her own brand. The difference is that she’s not a fictional character, and treating her as one, or linking her simplistically to the ones she’s put into the world, is not a trap a good TV critic should fall into.