How To Get Away With Murder. Insecure. Black-ish. Empire. Atlanta. Even poor, long-gone Pitch. Each and every one of these shows, along with a long line of others, owes a massive debt to the one, the only, the forever iconic, Scandal, which will shutter its doors for good tonight, April 19, with series finale “Over A Cliff.” Although Scandal, with its Emmy-attracting performances, rainbow-coloured cast, and soapy tendencies, now seems pretty par for the course as television becomes more inclusive, and cinematic by the week, it’s important to remember TV wasn’t always like this.
In just the year before Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) captured our hearts and Twitter fingers, women of color like Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Carmen Ejogo, and Natalie Martinez were all playing second fiddle to white men. By now, they’ve all led their own series: dearly departed Underground, The Girlfriend Experience, along with the upcoming True Detective season 3, and ABC’s new The Crossing, respectively.
Nearly everything about Scandal’s DNA has cemented it as an unimpeachable foremother to the television renaissance we can now enjoy in 2018, and it should be remembered as such.
“The legacy of the show will definitely be Kerry Washington being the first African-American lead actress on a drama in a network show in what was it, 37 years?” Washington’s co-star of seven years, Katie Lowes, told Refinery29 over the phone. And Lowes, who plays Olivia Pope and Associates (OPA) newbie-turned-deadly spy-turned working mom Quinn Perkins, is precisely correct. Before Olivia Pope hit your airwaves with Scandal's April 2012 series premiere, not one black woman had led a network drama since Get Christie Love! was canceled in 1975, 37 years prior.
“What’s amazing is that America wanted it and was ready for it, and thank God it paved the way for so many other TV shows to have people of colour in the forefront of storytelling,” Lowes added. “Everyone should be able to turn on the television and see people who look like them.”
When Scandal first aired in spring 2012, its extremely short, seven-episode debut season felt like a test run. That’s why the political thriller proved its true success during the 2012-2013 season, where it gave fans a 22-episode sophomore year. That was the season its penultimate episode bested then-juggernaut American Idol in the ratings for the first time and scored series-high numbers. That was when headlines breathlessly praised Scandal’s dominance on Twitter. You know, the dominance that would eventually beget Shondaland’s full #TGIT social media-pop culture extravaganza. And, that was the year ABC tried to speak of Olivia Pope, and only Olivia Pope, during its upfront meetings with prospective advertisers, ratings be damned.
It should be no surprise other networks soon took notice of Olivia Pope’s ability to handle viewers and, in reaction, created more space for women — especially women of color. In the 2013-2014 season alone, which followed ABC’s all Scandal, all the time upfront presentation, CBS was touting Halle Berry’s Extant, FOX had sleeper hit Sleepy Hollow, starring Nicole Beharie, on its hands, and ABC filled its own schedule with even more complicated, unstoppable women with dramas like Killer Women and Betrayal. While none of these shows had the staying power, or narrative ingenuity, of Scandal, they did open the door for more shows featuring story-pushing women like Berry's Molly Woods and Beharie's Abbie Mills.
I remember laying my head on the pillow the night we wrapped, and I was crying to my husband, saying, ‘Wow we did it.’
Lowes hopes her beloved Shondaland drama is remembered for just how many of those complex ladies it offered viewers every week. “I think that will be a legacy … having a female president, a female chief of staff, having Quinn Perkins running Quinn Perkins And Associates as a pregnant woman,” the actress explained. “The powerful, strong, three-dimensional, really complicated women roles on this show will be a legacy.”
The run of women on Scandal certainly does feel historic. Olivia Pope, TV’s beacon of complex black excellence, created two presidents, led a top-secret spy organisation, saved The Republic, acted as the most powerful person in that republic, and beat a misogynist to death in the bowels of the White House, all while wearing the most effortlessly stunning white coats in the galaxy and having lots of amazing sex.
All of this relentless boundary pushing explains why Washington was the first black woman to be nominated for a Lead Actress In A Drama Emmy in nearly 20 years when she received the nod in 2013. While Liv's alter-ego didn't win, fellow Shondaland star Viola Davis would two years later for her performance as Annalise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder. It's difficult to imagine we would get the deceitful, compelling, vodka-swigging style of Annalise without the success of Olivia. Naturally, Davis thanked Washington, among other history-making black actresses, for redefining “what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black … for taking us over that line.”
Scandal creator/executive producer/general mastermind Shonda Rhimes recently pointed out just how far Washington's Olivia moved that proverbial line. “She's been a very three-dimensional independent woman who was, at a time when female characters really weren’t antiheroes, an antihero,” the Shondaland queen told Deadline ahead of her series' finale. “And now it feels very normal and obvious that female characters can be anti-heroes. It feels normal and obvious that women of colour can lead the shows”
Thankfully, the great Olivia Pope wasn’t the only woman on Scandal with a vast, tangled inner life. Mellie Grant went from the villain fans loved to hate to the first female president in this TV world, whom fans simply loved. And there was a grief-stricken, moonshine-drinking-at-a-grave arc in the middle. We were never allowed to forget Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield) was a domestic abuse survivor who worked her way to a seat right next to the President Of The United States (the original President Grant, Tony Goldwyn). Even Liv’s mother Maya Pope (Khandi Alexander) was a badass black powerhouse, world class spy, and shade machine who happened to be the only person alive who could read the often headstrong Olivia for filth. There’s a reason Alexander was nominated for a Guest Actress Emmy in 2015
Lowes marveled at how her own character, the ever-evolving and now-deadly Quinn Perkins, has grown leaps and bounds since we met her in 2012. While the actress entered Scandal expecting to act as an audience surrogate on a case-of-the-week network drama, that is certainly not what happened. “I had no idea she would be a member of B613. I had no idea she would have sexual relations with Huck (Guillermo Díaz). I had no idea she would end up having a baby [with reformed spy Charlie],” Lowes said.
Despite the fact the series’ greatest marketing ploy has been promising those kind of “O-M-G” twists, it’s vital to remember Scandal hasn’t merely been 124 episodes of madness. When people weren’t having sex in random corners of the White House or ripping off people’s body parts for information, the drama was making important statements both in front of, and behind the camera.
“I’m proud to be a part of a show where, as much as there were cases about politicians sending dick pics … there were also a lot of episodes dealing with social issues that are going on right now in this country,” Lowes said, ticking off instalments built around subjects like police brutality (“The Lawn Chair), the real-life epidemic of missing girls of colour in the D.C. area (“Lost Girls”), and rape in the military (“A Few Good Women”). Scandal has remained dedicated to having “real important things to say,” as Lowes put it, even in its final episodes, as last month’s “The List” handled the #MeToo movement better, and faster, than any scripted series has since the social media crusade caught fire last fall.
Yet, it sounds as though the Scandal team was upholding the values of #MeToo long before the hashtag was in everyone’s mouth. “From day one to the end, people treated each other kindly and with respect and with love … I don’t know if in Hollywood that’s always something remembered, or celebrated, or that people even think is achievable, and we did it,” the actress and mom of one triumphantly said, noting even the assistant director minded her breastfeeding schedule. “I remember laying my head on the pillow the night we wrapped, and I was crying to my husband, saying, ‘Wow we did it.’
“I know that everyone who works on Scandal will take that onto their next job and expect similar behaviour.”
While Scandal fans might be sad to see their gladiators go, at least we can rest assured an army of supportive, feminist, and thoughtful TV veterans are about to infiltrate countless television and movie sets and demand that kind of signature Shondaland respect is given to every person around them. So, yes, Olivia Pope will still be handling things long after she's off your DVR.
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