I'm not one to really focus on race and racial issues on television. Television for me is primarily about great storytelling, interesting characters, and entertainment value. I don't believe TV writers should overburden viewers with melodramatic race plots if they're irrelevant to the show's premise, but don't get me wrong. Race and race issues are important. It affects people every day and it's part of real life. But simply because a character is of a diverse, ethnic background doesn't warrant a necessity to make it a point of contention within a show. As a television viewer, it's hard not to notice how few shows carry an African-American actor as its primary lead, specifically on broadcast network programming. There are plenty of shows currently in primetime where African Americans play significant roles in the context of their shows (i.e. Grey's Anatomy, New Girl, Person of Interest, Glee, etc.). In fact, it's now pretty much expected for a television series to have at least one supporting ethnic character. Just look at the slack Lena Dunham got for a primarily all-white cast in season one of Girls.
But the key here is that these roles have always been supporting ones. There are virtually no shows in recent years that feature an African-American as the main character. That was part of the fascination I held with the show Scandal. For starters, it's been nearly four decades since an African-American female served as the primary character on any broadcast network television series, not to mention primetime series. So this in itself seemed rather groundbreaking. Because of this progressive move, I could only assume that race would be a recurring theme on the series. Much to my surprise, there has been no mention of race thus far. And even after I continued through season one and two, still, no discussion of race or focus placed on it in any context. Here is a show on broadcast television starring an African-American female, the first in almost 40 years, and race plays absolutely no role. In fact, race is so irrelevant that we'd be hard-pressed to learn that the character was written with a specific race in mind. As I watch Olivia and Fitz's steamy, passionate affair play out before me, it doesn't even dawn on me what a prominent, interracial relationship this is. I thought what an interesting, unprecedented moment in television. Finally, we can view a show that promotes diversity without being bogged down by issues of race. Finally, we meet a strong character who is undefined by racial background. Anyone can be her, anyone can relate to her. She is the every woman, but portrayed by a Black actor.
It's pretty amazing how such a simple notion can be quite extraordinary when exercised. And with all the success the show has had, continuing to gain viewership, there's much to celebrate. While it would seem that Scandal might be a lone wolf in network broadcast, another series, in primetime nonetheless, has come to the forefront on how race is being addressed on television. Like Scandal, Deception is led by an African-American female, but it goes even further with two Black actors as the primary leads of the show. As I watched Deception, I noticed the glaring similarity between the two shows not being that they both star African-American actors, but that race is not a relevant issue on either. It plays no role in the story's premise. It's virtually non-existent. Coincidence? I'm not sure, but it was extremely intriguing given that both shows are new. At the Television Critics Association winter press tour, when asked about casting two African-Americans as the show's leads and whether race issues would be central to the show, Deception creator Liz Heldens said, "I suppose that because of the way it all shook out, it was a way to deal with race without having to actually talk about it. But it's not something we talk about too much in the writers' room." She further points out that there wasn't a particular intent to cast African-Americans in the roles as race was not specified in the script.
Some have contested that the deliberate exclusion of race issues on the show is a cop out and an excuse to avoid an inflammatory subject. Last week, the New York Times praised the show forbreaking barriers as its "cast members are ethnically diverse but are not defined by their race or ethnicity." Olivia Pope may not be defined by her race, but as a result, she lacks a clear identity that in the real world would normally stem from race, gender, sexual orientation or any other demographic we identify with. Moreover, it would seem disconcerting that the first primetime drama on broadcast television to feature a Black female lead chooses to do so with a character whose image conforms to that of white America. She is not a stereotypical Black character which seems progressive, but her character's life is certainly not representative of the issues Black America is facing today. What are we saying if the first show with a Black female lead in years is portrayed through societal conformity without any racial identity? What are we implying if a show dubbed as "groundbreaking" chooses not to tackle the real life issues of race? Perhaps that America is still uncomfortable with race and that many Americans are incapable of confronting the hardships of their very different fellow citizens. The television industry has continuously struggled with bridging communities over issues of race, but neglecting these issues could prove to have more serious repercussions in the long run.
Whether you believe television has a duty to delve into this subject, a case can be made for both sides. I personally find it refreshing not to focus on race for a change. Sometimes diversity can be showcased irrespective of racial discourse, which from time to time is a breath of fresh air. There should be space for diversity without the antagonism of race, and the introduction of shows like Scandal and Deception illustrate that a new trajectory has been marked. What does this convey about how we address race on television? Is television transforming into a color-blind medium? Does it at least have the potential to? Maybe, maybe not. I can't say for sure. After all, they are only two programs among a sea of "traditionally-produced" on network television. But it's a start. And as long as audiences enjoy these shows and viewership increases (which is happening), maybe we'll actually have something here.
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