‘Deception’ vs. ‘Scandal’ on Race

Unlike Rhimes' hit, NBC's new series seems to tiptoe around what it means to have a black leading lady.

Meagan Good in Deception (Will Hart/NBC); Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn in Scandal (Randy Holmes/ABC)

In both roles the women have enmeshed themselves in a predominantly white story line. Nowhere was the issue of race more directly addressed in Scandal than in a conversation between Olivia and Fitz in which she compared their affair to that of the slave Sally Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson.

“There’s no Sally or Thomas here,” Fitz tells Olivia. “You’re nobody’s victim, Liv. I belong to you. We’re in this together.” In that brief exchange, Scandal’s writers squashed criticisms of the imbalance of power inherent in Olivia’s relationship with Fitz, which is almost too easily boiled down to race.

In the pilot episode of Deception, we learn that Good’s Joanna character had a “relationship” with Bowers scion Julian — an affair that she thought was secret until Vivian Bowers threw it in her face. “I know everyone thinks you’re an angel, but I know about you and Julian. He doesn’t care about you. He only bangs you when he’s bored,” said Vivian in the fight that ended their friendship.

The insult cuts multiple ways. Not only is Joanna the daughter of the housekeeper, and therefore rungs on rungs on rungs below the Bowers on the socioeconomic ladder, but she is also black, and the potential racial taboos are impossible to ignore, even in 2013.

In the first episode of Deception, however, none of those very obvious elephants in the room are addressed, leaving the audience more than a little wary of what might happen next. While watching the pilot, I could feel myself clenching in anticipation of a weakly veiled slur every time Joanna had to confront any of the spoiled richer-than-thou Bowers. But when it didn’t come, I can’t say I was relieved.

“I’m usually scared to death of what I might see if I do stumble across a black woman on the small screen,” Allison Samuels wrote in the Daily Beast last April. “In my experience, the sight of a black woman on TV has meant one thing: trouble.”

It’s a complicated jig that the very few shows featuring leading women of color must perform. How much should their characters reference the issues surrounding race? And in doing so, do they undermine the plot or the role? Is it ever possible to divorce the two? Thus far in its season and a half, Scandal has done an excellent job of walking the line. Whether Deception can or will even attempt to do the same remains to seen.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.