Unlike Rhimes' hit, NBC's new series seems to tiptoe around what it means to have a black leading lady.
(The Root) -- The comparisons were inevitable and obvious. NBC's newest murder mystery, Deception, starring Meagan Good, looks a lot like ABC's Revenge, a show that has chronicled the lifestyles of the rich and homicidal since last season.
Nearly every mention of Deception, which premiered Monday night, is sure to cite the new show's clear nod to the ABC hit. Although scandal and the wealthy have always made for must-see TV, in an interview with USA Today, Good bulleted the disparate plotlines as if they were practiced talking points.
"I think this is really different, in the sense that it has all these elements from great shows that people love, but it's really its own thing because of the love triangle, the family drama, the murder mystery, and because this girl is living a double life," said Good, making a case for a fresh take on an old subject.
But Deception has something in common with another ABC hit -- something that isn't getting much attention. I'm talking, of course, about Scandal, the Kerry Washington-led ensemble soap in which another strong (if flawed) black leading lady has made it her job to solve problems while being mired in her own.
In Scandal -- which returns with new episodes on Jan. 10 -- Olivia Pope (Washington) is a professional fixer. Week after week, a new crisis lands in her K Street boardroom as the revolving door of political scandal keeps spinning. Add to that the steamy love affair Olivia is mired in with the married president of the United States, and Scandal layers intrigue on top of a pretty formulaic serial.
In Deception, Good plays Joanna Locasto, a 30-something detective who grew up in the home of the Bowers as the daughter of their housekeeper. As children, Joanna and the Bowers' druggie daughter (every rich family has one), Vivian, were besties. Decades later, Vivian turns up dead under shady circumstances, and Joanna is called upon to go undercover, living once again in the Bowers' home while trying to uncover their carefully guarded secrets.
Both Joanna and Olivia can be viewed as outsiders of a sort. Although Olivia is the quintessential Washington insider in terms of her career trajectory, her personal life is another matter. She's the perennial other woman when it comes to her relationship with President Fitzgerald "Fitz" Grant. Joanna's angle as an enduring "houseguest" in the Bowers' compound also emphasizes her role as an outside, an other. Like Olivia, Joanna isn't an official member of the family, regardless of how fond they may be of her.
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.