One of my greatest lessons in the power of representation on TV came from watching an episode of Scandal.
In fall 2013, I spent an evening with a group of black and brown women watching an installment from the show's third season. We were gathered in a comfortable, tastefully decorated town house in Washington, D.C. Spirits were high — everyone was ready to watch political fixer supreme Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) tackle the latest bizarro crisis invented by series creator Shonda Rhimes.
What struck me most was how much pride these these smart, accomplished professional women took in seeing a character like themselves taking care of business on network television. Finally there was a non-white woman leading a big-ticket drama series who was as complex, capable and passionate as they were.
Scandal viewing parties like this one may still happen, but you don't hear about them as much. That may be because Rhimes' show, which airs its final episode Thursday, isn't quite the unicorn it was seven seasons ago, when the pilot introduced us to a fast-talking African-American power broker who just happened to be having an affair with the white president of the United States.
Back in the spring of 2012, network TV hadn't presented a drama starring a black woman since the mid-197os, when Teresa Graves led the awesomely campy blaxploitation knockoff Get Christie Love! Now, ABC has Viola Davis as a hotshot attorney in How to Get Away with Murder, and Fox has Taraji P. Henson as a brash music mogul in Empire. On cable TV and streaming, black women are leads on the OWN series Queen Sugar and Greenleaf, BET's The Quad, Netflix's Dear White People and She's Gotta Have It, and the HBO comedy Insecure.
It's not much, but it's a lot more than we had when Scandal first dropped. Add that growing on-screen diversity to the flood of outrageous, never-seen-this-before news coming from the Trump administration, and you have a sense that the twin industries of politics and television have caught up to Scandal's once-groundbreaking spirit.
In other words, one reason it might be time for this pioneering program to leave the airwaves is because it's not really so pioneering anymore.
What Scandal Accomplished
It's worth noting that elements of the show that may feel worn now — like the way characters tear through scenes, spitting out dialogue at a breathless pace — felt fresh when the show first started.
And then there are the bonkers storylines, which have only gotten crazier in this final season (yes, there are lots of spoilers coming): Villainous Vice President Cyrus Beene is on the verge of pushing out now-President Melody "Mellie" Grant by making it seem as if she hired a hacker to take out Air Force Two when he was in the air. Olivia, who is working with the president, considered stopping the plot by feeding Cyrus poisoned wine. Instead, she took responsibility for ordering an assassination when she ran a super-secret CIA-style organization called B613; an agency she later convinces a TV anchor to expose publicly. This imperils the plans of Cyrus and his ally Jake Ballard, who now runs B613. Oh, and Olivia is back to sleeping with the now-former president, Fitzgerald "Fitz" Grant, who has divorced Mellie, but still supports and advises her. Got it?
More than a guilty pleasure, Scandal's success was proof of the power of female viewers, especially black women. These were the sisters who talked about the show on social media early in its run, turning Black Twitter into a running commentary track and making Scandal into appointment television.
Of course, it wasn't just black women who built Scandal into a phenomenon. But their embrace of the show early on — after Kerry Washington encouraged the cast to live-tweet each episode as it aired — helped create a cadre of devoted fans.
Rhimes always bristles when asked about the show's diversity and her reputation for colorblind casting. "It's not trailblazing to write the world as it actually is," she said in 2016 while accepting an honor at the Producers Guild Awards. Perhaps, like a trapeze artist who never looks down, it works better for Rhimes not to focus on how many rules she breaks in casting choices and characterizations. Or maybe it was the culmination of a long strategy: Rhimes established her mainstream success with Grey's Anatomy and its spinoff, Private Practice, before getting the juice to move a black woman to the center of the action in Scandal.
Even Scandal's pilot episode feels like it eases audiences into Olivia Pope's world. It introduces Olivia and her quirky band of crisis managers through the eyes of new hire Quinn Perkins, a young, white female who seems an awful lot like a surrogate for the average viewer.
Since then, Rhimes has ratcheted up how the show talks about race, including a crossover episode with How to Get Away with Murder character Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), where Annalise calls Olivia out for being uptight and disconnected from her roots as a black woman.
While they're both sitting in chairs at a hair salon.
That's a seriously black conversation.
Nothing Lasts Forever
ABC won't give critics an early peek at the show's final episode, but I'm secretly hoping Olivia and Fitz wind up on a tropical island together. (Aren't you?)
Regardless of how it ends Thursday, Scandal will always have a special place in network TV history. It reshaped the landscape in ways that will continue to pay dividends long after Olivia Pope handles her last crisis.