Critic's Notebook: Shonda Rhimes and the Elusive Power of Diversity

Shondaland's addictive 'How to Get Away With Murder' suggests both how far we've come and how far we have left to go in terms of diversity on TV, writes Ken Tucker

This story first appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If I wasn't so entranced with Viola Davis' performance in How To Get Away With Murder, you'd never catch me wandering into the amusement park of Shondaland to risk the possibility of slipping and pulling an Alessandra Stanley.

But I can't help myself. The bravura confidence of Davis' lawyer-professor-sadist-antihero-heroine Annalise Keating emboldens me: Murder, produced by Shonda Rhimes and created by Peter Nowalk, has turned out to be the most interesting new fall TV show, and not (just) because Prof. Keating is, you know, black. And she's not angry so much as crisp, firm and unconcerned with people-pleasing (which in an effective drama makes people pleased to watch such a protagonist even more).

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The thing is, Keating's occasionally flashing anger is actually pure pedagogical put-on brilliance — in her wily, unnerving version of the Socratic method, she comes on furious to rattle the cute little twerps sitting in her classroom like so many entitled future corporate sharks. If Keating is modeled on anyone in fictional academia, it's The Paper Chase's Prof. Charles Kingsfield, played by John Houseman in a 1973 film (and subsequent TV adaptation) with the sniffy self-regard of someone who knew he was worth better material — and he won an Oscar for the damn thing.

Nowadays, TV has upped its status so substantially, I suspect Davis knows that, after building her own sturdy movie career, starring in a nighttime soap with a crazy flashback death plot and a massive Twitter following is one of the 21st century's worthiest rewards.

There's yet another precursor to confident Keating and her courtroom team: Perry Mason (Raymond Burr), who, using his skeleton crew of investigator Paul Drake (William Hopper) and "confidential secretary" Della Street (Barbara Hale), won case after case from 1957 to 1966 with stone-faced sureness.

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You'll note that both of my examples feature white males as the leads, and this is where the situation gets both triumphant and vexed. That it took until 2014 for us to behold a black female super-lawyer in a show that's a mass-audience hit speaks less of the prejudices of the audience than of the — let's put this as kindly as possible — conservatism of the TV industry. It's built into the system. Consider: The early history of television featured far fewer African-Americans, as performers or behind-the-scenes participants (writers, producers, etc.), than the early days of pop music or even the movies. Virtually all the initial black-starring roles were holdovers from another medium, radio (Amos 'n' Andy, Beulah). There was thus an institutionalized barrier to black achievement in TV that became an implicitly racist common wisdom: America — meaning "white America" — wouldn't watch black leads.

In a better pop culture, there would now be as many cults, calls for a reunion show, and features on Vulture listing the best episodes of Frank's Place, the rich, 1987 Tim Reid-led dramedy about a black New Orleans professor turned restaurateur, as there are wet-eyed nostalgists who won't let go of Full House (which premiered the same year).

There's a moment in Mark Whitaker's new biography of Bill Cosby, in the section about I Spy (1965-68), in which the author describes how Cosby (then the first African-American actor to star in a TV drama) and his co-star Robert Culp believed "the best contribution they could make to the race issue was to have [their characters] Kelly and Scott behave as though it didn't exist. 'Our statement will be a non-statement,' Culp said. 'Dead on, pard,' Cosby agreed."

I was struck by the similar approach, almost a half-century later, Rhimes has taken to the shows for which she oversees casting, production and tone. Cosby and Rhimes both know that this strategy of non-engagement results in its opposite: in its effect on viewers, it's a bold and decisive engagement that moves the culture forward quite firmly.

This season, the rest of ABC's much-bruited diversity strategy — Black-ish and Cristela and the forthcoming Fresh Off the Boat — is still in the proving stages, those shows varyingly promising or mediocre or yet to gel. For example, Black-ish had an intriguing pilot, a ho-hum second outing, but took off like a rocket in its third, Oct. 8 episode, one that not so coincidentally grabbed its what-it-means-to-be-black theme and really ran with it.

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The half-hour, written by creator Kenya Barris, was both hilarious and nuanced about the show's three generations of African-American experience in matters of friendship, careerism, education and sports. And when it came to the way Anthony Anderson's and Laurence Fishburne's characters taught young Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) to appraise women with admirable posteriors, you knew Black-ish was onto something very provocative; as soon as it aired, the cultural liberals on Twitter started sputtering like Bill O'Reilly on a Beyonce rant.

All of which suggests how unsettled the matter of diversity — how to conceive it, how to execute it, and why are we still waiting for it? — truly remains.