By Denise Clay
The good news is, the students of Cedar Valley College in Dallas had Roland Martin, host of TV One’s “Washington Week” as their commencement speaker on Thursday.
The bad news is, if you were a student hoping to chat with the winner of the NABJ’s 2013 Journalist of the Year Award, you had to catch him before 9 p.m. Central Time.
Why? Because at 9, Martin has a date with his myriad of Twitter followers…and the television show Scandal. Martin’s play-by-play of the show on Twitter (complete with playlists for each character) is a hit with thousands of followers from the social networking platform.
“When I can’t watch an episode, people are like “Where are you?! What’s going on?! It’s crazy!” he said.
Martin says he had started Tweeting about the show as a means of supporting
Scandal, and to let ABC know that a demographic it might want to pay attention to, Black people, were looking for something decent to watch.
It also provides a glimpse into Washington’s culture, even if it’s not entirely a realistic one.
“The show does take some creative license,” he said. “But there are some things that are realistic.”
Scandal ended its second season on ABC Thursday night, and while there were no ratings numbers or numbers from Twitter available before press time for this story, chances are that nothing else was being discussed on the social media site that night.
The show, which is based on the life of Judy Smith, a PR consultant that has handled crisis communications for politicians and celebrities including Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, tells the story of Olivia Pope, a Washington D.C. “fixer” who tries to get politicians and others out of the messes they get into.
Aided by a crew that includes a young woman framed for a crime she didn’t commit, and a former member of a secret CIA hit and torture team who goes to Alcoholics Anonymous to try and get over his “addiction” to killing people, Pope, portrayed by Kerry Washington, spends much of her time trying not to get eaten by the sharks in the tank that she swims in.
And we haven’t even talked about her boyfriend, who just happens to be the very married President of the United States that Pope (and his wife) helped get “elected” to office by rigging a computerized voting machine.
It’s become Must-See TV.
“I have to watch it every week,” said Darisha K. Miller, a public relations professional that has worked with political candidates here in Philadelphia. “It’s a great thing to see. I love it.”
“It moves quickly,” said Jannette Witmyer, a freelance writer from Baltimore that I met on one of the many Scandal Facebook pages that have sprung up in support of the show. “I’m not really a TV watcher, but something about this show grabbed me.”
That Olivia Pope isn’t your everyday African American character is one of the things that has made the show a hit with African Americans in particular, said Patrick L. Riley, a New York-based pop culture critic and television producer. Unlike the last Black, professional woman we saw on a weekly basis, The Cosby Show’s Claire Huxtable, Olivia Pope gets to go places no Black character has gone before, Riley said.
“It’s refreshing for an African American audience to see someone inhabit traits not commonly associated with African American characters,” he said. “Black people aren’t usually represented in such positive, complex and powerful ways. [Olivia Pope] is not a two-dimensional character. She’s powerful and intelligent and fierce with great style and an attitude. She allows for us to see our complex, imperfect possibilities as a people.”
It has also inspired a massive following. In addition to Martin, who is considered one of the more prolific Tweeters about the show, Scandal has inspired at least four Facebook groups and has turned Twitter into the World’s Largest Chat Room from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. (and in some cases, beyond that time) on Thursday nights. About 190,000 Tweets serve as a play-by-play of the action during the show.
And the buzz doesn’t just stop at social media, Riley said. People from all walks of life have been known to leave events early, or just not come at all, if they think that their attendance will cause them to miss Scandal, he said.
That the show has taken that social media buzz and run with it has been a good thing, said Stephanie Humphrey, a tech life expert who watches the show every week and refuses to get on social media on Thursday nights if she has to miss it.
“How the show has used social media has been very smart,” she said.
But while the show’s partisans on the Internet and social media have been happily following along, Olivia Pope doesn’t enjoy universal cyberspace love. A Twitter hashtag #ScandalMancott asks a fairly pertinent question: How can a bunch of women who would kill the woman their boyfriends or husbands were cheating on them with spend Thursday nights, well, cheering on the Jump-Off?
One reason is because the character of Mellie, played with gusto by Bellamy Young, is written in such a way that you feel kind of sorry for President Grant, portrayed by Tony Goldwyn.
“She’s so devious and manipulating,” Whitmyer said. “She’s easy to dislike. It’s a political marriage and you can tell. She wouldn’t be with him if he weren’t the president. It’s fictional, so it’s easy to root for the other woman.”
Another reason, women are usually smart enough to be able to tell reality from fantasy.
“It’s television,” Humphrey said. “People can make the distinction between fantasy and reality.”
Currently, we have an African American serving as President of the United States. In fact, Washington was one of the many celebrities that spoke on his behalf at the Democratic National Convention in 2012 in Charlotte, N.C. and has done some work with the Obama Administration on the arts.
So would Scandal have worked if President Fitzgerald Grant had been, say, President Michael Robinson?
It would have had to work without Washington. The actress told BET back in February that casting Grant as an African American would have been a deal breaker for her.
“I was a little concerned because [the character has] a scandalous relationship with the [occupant of the] White House,” she told BET. “I thought, ‘If the president on the show is Black, I will not do the show.’ Because to me, it was too important a moment. I didn’t want to do anything that compromised my relationship with the [president] or that made it seem like I had an insider view on the Obama presidency I thought that would be so disrespectful and so against all the work that I had done.”
While Martin believes that the writing and pace of the show are such that President Grant’s race wouldn’t have mattered, Humphrey believes that it would have been a problem.
“America would have considered it a “Black Show”, she said. “And you know what happens to them…Plus, [the adultery angle] would have been seen as one more negative stereotype against Black men, so we wouldn’t have watched either.”
However, the nature of network television has all but insured that such casting wouldn’t have happened, said Eric Deggins, television critic for the Tampa Bay Times and author of the book Race Baiter: How The Media Wields Dangerous Words To Divide A Nation. That’s because when it comes to people of color on a show, the networks have a quota, he said.
“The networks get nervous about having too many Black characters on a show,” he said. “If the president were Black, then there would have had to be a Black First Lady, some Black kids…The networks don’t want to have that many Black characters because they believe that White viewers will look at the show and think it’s not for them.”
In fact, were it not for the fact that Rimes already had hits like Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice and ABC wanted to hold on to her, Scandal might not have been seen again after its eight-episode Season One run.
“The ratings weren’t terrific,” Deggins said. “But ABC wants to be in the Shonda Rhimes business. I think that she had a master plan where she could get to the point where she could do something [that features a Black person in a leading role] and make it a success.”
While the Scandal will be taking a break for the summer, its partisans will probably be spending the summer trying to figure out who did what to whom, will President Grant enter the White House for a second term with Olivia or Mellie on his arm, and what’s next for the show.
But chances are, it won’t be boring.