What Are They Hiding?
Samuels, Allison, Newsweek
Byline: Allison Samuels
This trio is keeping politicians' secrets--and breaking ground at the same time.
Female writers and producers are no longer a rarity in television--think Chelsea Handler, Whitney Cummings, and The Good Wife co-creator Michelle King--but it's hard to not notice that most of these shows are written by and for and feature white women. All that changes with Scandal on the spring lineup. When the hourlong drama--the brainchild of Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes and starring Kerry Washington--debuts in April, it will be the first time in 30 years that a single African-American woman leads a primetime show on network TV. (The last time was Teresa Graves's turn as an undercover detective in the 1974 made-for-TV flick Get Christie Love!)
Scandal is inspired by the real-life story of Judy Smith, the noted African-American political-crisis-management expert and former White House aide. Smith's work over the years has included cooling the fires of such high-profile controversies as Monica Lewinsky, Michael Vick's dog-fighting charges, and the disappearance of D.C. intern Chandra Levy.
Though the show is only "inspired by" Smith's career and has a few embellished details, it promises to keep audiences engaged with sizzling storylines straight from recent news events. One steamy subplot suggests that Olivia Pope--the main character, played by Washington--had an ill-fated romantic liaison with the commander in chief. ("I can assure you that didn't happen," says Smith, laughing.)
Smith was introduced to Rhimes more than two years ago by Rhimes's producing partner Betsy Beers. "I remembered having a meeting with Judy that was supposed to last for about 20 minutes," says Rhimes. "We ended up talking about two hours or more that day, and I knew she was my next show. I was spellbound."
At the time, Rhimes wasn't familiar with Smith's nearly 20-year career, which dates back to the Iran-contra hearings. She was doubly surprised to learn that Smith happened to be African-American. But Rhimes says that in early pitches to the network, the race of the lead character wasn't discussed. "A good story is a good story," she says. "It doesn't matter what the race is, and that's always been my belief.
"That said, it was wonderful to have a story based on an African-American woman that called out for an African-American female lead. There didn't need to be a discussion about it because it was what it was."
Before meeting Rhimes, Smith--who is more accustomed to working behind the scenes--never thought her life would soon become the stuff of television drama. "You do your work, and you do the best you can," she says. "That's what my parents taught me, and I think what they were saying was, 'If you do a good job, other things may come your way. …