TV critics have hit the mark on their description of the character as passionate, tough and sexy, with a penchant for giving a break to the underdog, the unpolished kid with the right stuff.
She is ethically challenged, too, a woman with the muscles to cheat in marriage and in the courtroom. From the moment Davis’s character appears, you know she’s used to bending the world to her will. In one moment Keating is shredding law students with her razor-like words, in another she’s shedding a tear about being childless. Except it leaves viewers wondering if that’s a boldfaced lie or the truth opportunistically revealed to explain an indiscretion. Does that then make it something of a lie?
Life is a messy thing. We manage this reality with the choices we make, the good ones, the bad ones, the impossible ones. Sometimes we stumble into moments of grace.
If you live in the television world created by Rhimes, then you are learning this universal truth again and again. Rhimes’ freshness rests in her desire to explore this truth of being human through the lens of more than white men, but through all of the rest of us simultaneously, thrown together in one big stew. Women, and men, white, Asian, Latino, black, straight and gay, all get to be fully human — albeit some superhuman, in Olivia Pope fashion — but human just the same, complicated, full of contradictions and driven by all the craziness that can be the motivation behind our quiet and sometimes not-so-quiet desperations.
With its debut Thursday, “How to Get Away With Murder” — although created by long-time ShondaLand writer Pete Nowalk, instead of Rhimes – fits comfortably in that perspective.
The Internet righteously slammed New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley for tagging Rhimes — and her African American female characters — with the “angry black woman” trope. Stanley’s article has been dissected, pilloried and parodied. Few let her escape on that crack about how Davis as “less classically beautiful,” either. Her point, was that Rhimes was challenging a European-based aesthetic, but she proved to be a part of the problem by using the term “classic.” Davis addressed the back-handed compliment Friday on The View.
Stanley’s biggest crime is minimizing what Rhimes has accomplished since “Grey’s Anatomy” premiered in 2005. In just under 10 years, she opened the doors for TV fantasy to look something like the actual world.
The three black women characters that Stanley name-checked — “Grey’s” Miranda Bailey, “Scandal’s” Olivia Pope and “Murder’s” Keating do have commonalities. They are strong and vulnerable, supportive of others and able to vanquish them if necessary. They make poor decisions and help others to do what’s right. They aren’t there to be sidekicks with sassy one-liners or vessels of wisdom, they are players at the center of their worlds.
Keating’s cunning intelligence is probably more reminiscent of “Scandal’s” Cyrus Beene, than Pope or Bailey. As President Grant’s chief of staff, Beene isn’t afraid to get down and dirty to accomplish his goals. The guy has an assassin on speed dial. Though he resents the fact that, as a gay man, he’s reached the highest point in his political career that he thinks the Republican Party will allow, he is unflinchingly loyal to Grant, presumably because he was supportive of Beene when he began dating his late-husband, fan-favorite James Novak.
It’s Rhimes’s insistence that her characters are not confined to narrow boxes that have made ABC’s ShondaLand-dominated Thursday night line-up such an important addition to the changing landscape of TV.
“If you were the only black character on the show, you had to represent all of the black people in America and you had to behave in a certain way because you were all of the black people in America and if you did anything wrong, you were saying that black people were doing these things,” said Rhimes at a Smithsonian Associates event at the National Museum of Natural History last week.
She knew when she made Kerry Washington the lead on “Scandal,” people would be tempted to place Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, into a “role model” box. Pope is intelligent, kind-hearted and highly skilled, her affair with “Scandal’s” POTUS and election-rigging, for starters, don’t allow her to be stuffed so easily into anyone’s box.
“She was going to be doing lots of bad things and the idea that she was going to be doing those things and no longer be a shining example of anything was the goal. That is the goal: to just get to be a person,” Rhimes said her the character.
The popularity of “Scandal” and the slew of somewhat questionable hit reality shows starring black women that have hit the airwaves over the past few years seem to have reminded networks that shows starring people of color can draw audiences, like Wednesday’s “Black-Ish” premiere which brought in higher ratings than any other comedy ABC has recently aired after “Modern Family.”
When talking “Murder,” Rhimes described Keating as “a very different character than we’ve ever seen on TV.”
Casting the Academy Award-nominated actress all fell into place naturally after Rhimes heard Davis say on “Oprah’s Next Chapter” that no one would ever put her in a love scene with Bradley Cooper. Rhimes’s first thought? “Why not? That’s crazy.”
It’s the kind of question asked and answered by Rhimes in every episode of her shows, however outrageous the latest political scandal, however over-the-top the medical procedure, however unethical the courtroom trick. The real legacy of ShondaLand isn’t just about its black female characters, it’s about making racially diverse casting the norm and creating characters who are allowed to be human.