Scandal, now in its second season, has been a success for ABC. On a recent week the political thriller set in Washington had 3.52 million viewers aged 18-49 and 8.4 million total viewers. Among the group aged 18-34 it typically ranks first in its 10 p.m. Thursday time slot.
The show’s other sweet spot is its success among African-American audiences. According to Nielsen, Scandal is the highest-rated scripted drama among African-Americans, with 10.1 percent of black households, or an average of 1.8 million viewers, tuning in during the first half of the season.
One reason for that success is the casting of Kerry Washington, who became the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years. Her casting has prompted discussion among academics and fans of the show about whether Scandal represents a new era of postracial television, in which cast members are ethnically diverse but are not defined by their race or ethnicity.
“There’s an audience of African-Americans who just want to see themselves in a good story, not necessarily a race-specific show,” said Joan Morgan, a fan of the series and the author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, a book about black women and feminism today. “It’s not about this being a black show,” Morgan said. “It’s about seeing the show where black women and other women are represented less about race and more about who they are.”
Scandal follows the twists and turns of Olivia Pope, a political fixer played by Washington, and her team of lawyers, hackers, and political insiders. The character is loosely based on the real Washington operative Judy Smith, a former member of the George H.W. Bush White House and well-known crisis manager who has represented, among others, Monica Lewinsky and Michael Vick. (Smith is a co-executive producer on the show). Olivia is also having an affair with the president of the United States, Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III, played by Tony Goldwyn.
Asked whether she felt any pressure being in this unusual position, Washington said the pressure was on the audience more than on the cast and crew. She said in an email: “The question was: ‘Are audiences ready to have the stories that we tell on television to be more inclusive? Are we ready for our protagonists to represent people of all different genders and ethnicities?’
“I think the success of the show speaks to how we have become more inclusive as a society because the fans of the show span all different races and ages and genders,” she wrote.
Shonda Rhimes, the executive producer and creator of the show, declined repeated requests for an interview, and representatives for the show do not seem too interested in talking about the subject of race and Scandal. While excited about the show’s success among African-American audiences, they were eager to point out the show’s success among all audiences.
One of the few instances in which race was directly addressed by the characters in Scandal was an exchange between Olivia and Fitz, as the president is known. Olivia, discussing their relationship, tells him, “I’m feeling a little Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson about all this.” Later Fitz confronts Olivia and tells her that the comment was “below the belt.”
“You’re playing the race card on the fact that I’m in love with you,” he says.
Twitter and Facebook lit up with reaction.
“Rhimes is so smart.” said Kaila Story, who holds the Audre Lorde chair in race, class, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Louisville. She said the producer wanted to make clear this was a very different kind of relationship.
“The whole institution of enslavement in and of itself does not engender a romantic relationship,” Story said.