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Why is it still groundbreaking for a TV show like Scandal to have a black female star?

Kerry Washington, star of <em>Scandal</em>, is the first black woman to be starring in a US primetime network show since the 1970s.

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal.
Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal.

Blanche and Dorothy and Rose and Sophia. Donatello and Leonardo and Michelangelo and Raphael. Max and Khadijah and Synclaire and Regine. Samantha and Carrie and Charlotte and Miranda. The Power of Four (those foursomes were from The Golden Girls, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Living Single and Sex and the City, respectively) is a well worn television trope. For one thing, it makes it incredibly easy for TV writers to format “Which X Show Character Are YOU?” quizzes, and for another, it’s the perfect number for audiences to latch onto and identify with. It allows for interesting mixes - each relationship reveals further insight into the characters, and allows for more nuanced inferences to be written for, and understood by audiences. It’s a magic TV number.

Whatever permutations the four take on, there is always a "hub person" ie the character around whom the others revolve. The three are mere satellites - interesting and worthy of study, sure - but all working around the main event, the fully formed planet that brings them all together. So that’s why Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw was the only one who “couldn’t help but wonder”. It’s why Sarah Jessica Parker won the Golden Globe for Best Actress, while the others were nominated in the "Supporting Actress" category (only Kim Cattrall ever won). And even when all four of the leads won Emmys in the "Lead Actress" category, as with The Golden Girls, you knew in your gut that Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) was the show’s centre, just as Khadijah James (Queen Latifah) was the glue that kept the the girls together in Living Single.

The hub person that I am most excited by at the moment is on Some Girls, a teen show on BBC Three. Holli, Saz and Amber all revolve around their hub person, Viva, who is smart and wise and fun and pretty, and as complicated as a 16 year-old girl on telly can be. She is also black (where her satellites are white and Asian). If you can’t tell why that is worth noting, then you must not watch a lot of television. Even more thrillingly, Viva is a hub person in the same era as one of television’s Great Black Girl Moments™; she exists in the time of Scandal, and the character of Olivia Pope, who, with apologies to Charles Spencer, is sheer televisual viagra. Scandal is a phenomenon, not that you would guess this from its buried-away little slot on More4 on British telly.

Its star, Kerry Washington - all quivering lips and conflicted Bambi eyes - made history when she was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of the Washington DC fixer who isn’t quite as immaculate as the sharply tailored white suits she favours. Washington was the first black woman nominated in the category of Lead Actress in a Drama since Cicely Tyson in 1995; no black actress has ever won it, not once in the Emmys’ 64-year history. Scandal is one of the highest rated dramas on television at the moment, and Olivia Pope is not only the hub person on her show, she’s almost a hub person for prime time television as a whole. It is exciting, but we’ve been excited before, like when Halle Berry became the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar in 2001, and we all braced ourselves for a veritable rainbow revolution in the world of casting. In reality, only three black women have been nominated in that category since then (Gabourey Sidibe in 2009, for Precious; Viola Davis for The Help in 2011 and Quvenzhane Wallis last year, for Beasts of the Southern Wild) and none of them won. Break out the champagne. . .

But back to Scandal, which is impressive while still carrying the mantle of startling "firsts" for a television show being broadcast in the 2010s. Here are the facts of it: it was created by a black woman, based on the life of a black woman, and stars a black woman in the lead role. Washington is the first black woman to be starring in a US primetime network show since the 1970s. For the show’s eighth episode of the current (third) series, creator Shonda Rhimes has enlisted the talent of Sundance-winning Best Director Ava DuVernay (in turn, she was the first African-American winner of that prize). Ebony magazine tells us it “will be the first time a Black woman directs a primetime network TV drama created by a Black woman and starring a Black woman.” It is 2013.

Scandal is not problem-free, of course. It has been clumsy and cringingly awkward when it comes to race. There was a Sally Hemings' line shoehorned into season two with all the finesse of a tripping hippo, and a near total lack of acknowledgement of Pope’s achievement in shadow of American history and reality (you should watch Jessica Pearson - played by Gina Torres - in another US import, Suits, for that). It succeeds when it looks like it’s not trying too hard, when it just seems to be stating bald facts - the moment in season 2 episode 16 when the client reaches out to shake the hand of "Olivia Pope" and automatically approaches her junior colleague, a white redhead. It nails it even more powerfully in the season three opener, when Pope’s father (Joe Morton) asks her, “How many times have I told you, you have to be what?” And Olivia replies on a whisper, “Twice as good. . .” “To get half of what they have!” he completes with a bellow. It’s a pretty perfect scene, telling the story of one person, but also an entire race in a matter of seconds. It is an almost always impossible ask; what is often being asked of black people is something more than human: infallibility. And with the DNA of Scandal being what it is, the request has come to the show’s door - it has to be twice as good.

Thankfully, it usually is.