How Scandal became the perfect distillation of America’s political nightmares

How Scandal became the perfect distillation of America’s political nightmares

One of the biggest stories of the TV season has been how ABC’s Scandal, the deliriously entertaining political drama from Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, has grown from a show that barely received a season-two renewal into one of the few bright spots of the season’s Nielsen ratings. Scandal, which received only a 13-episode order heading into the season, actually defeated Grey’s in the 18-49 demographic for the first time a few weeks ago, and it seems as if ABC and Rhimes have finally found the successor to Grey’s they’ve long needed. The network may finally replace its No. 1 drama (which will head into its 10th season this fall), and Rhimes can finally reclaim her place as one of TV’s best writers, a crafter of compulsively watchable series that hide an impressive emotional acuity. 

Scandal got where it is by ramping up its storytelling to the point where nearly every episode contains what would be a full season’s worth of twists on other shows. Furthermore, Rhimes made the very smart decision to treat the first 13 episodes as a separate season of their own, then treat the so-called back nine as another arc. This decision brings with it some freedoms that cable dramas’ shorter episode orders boast over network dramas. But the series also taps into something indefinable in the political zeitgeist: As The West Wing defined the long twilight of the Clinton years, Scandal is the George W. Bush/Barack Obama TV show we didn’t know we needed. At its best, it plays like a slightly sci-fi dramatization of Glenn Greenwald’s blog, with soap elements added, as well as a hefty dose of romantic tragedy. In Scandal, there are only two things that hold true: No American institution—not governmental or corporate—has your best interests at heart, and human relationships are a kind of beautiful addiction, irresistible in the moment but spiraling outward to infect all they touch.

Oddly enough, Scandal began life as what seemed like a case-of-the-week show. (In this interview with Alan Sepinwall, Rhimes avers that the plan was always to lure the audience in with cases, then gradually increase the serialization.) Very loosely based on the work of former George H.W. Bush press aide and later crisis-management consultant Judy Smith, Scandal follows the life of political “fixer” Olivia Pope (the tremulously perfect Kerry Washington), a woman who works to smooth over scandals and crimes for the very rich and highly powerful. Very early in season one, it becomes clear that Olivia and her associates are only palatable to viewers because the people they work for—or strive against—are so much worse. In short, Scandal is Rhimes taking the cable antihero setup and filtering it through her particular sensibility. On Grey’s Anatomy, when people fall in love, it’s beautiful. When people fall in love on Scandal, it’s both powerful and a cancer.

At the show’s center is Olivia’s relationship with President Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant (Tony Goldwyn), a rough spin on a Mitt Romney type. He’s a moderate Republican who lives in the shadow of a politically successful father and speculation that he’s an empty suit propped up by his family’s money. Campaigning doesn’t come naturally to him, and when Olivia is brought in to help with his Republican primary campaign (where he competes against a fire-breathing Tea Party type played by longtime Rhimes player Kate Burton), the spark between the two is immediate and palpable. Rhimes has always been great at writing declarations of love, but she and her writing staff outdo themselves in seemingly every other episode of Scandal, where Fitz and Olivia lament how they can’t be together before ultimately coming to hate each other so much that the only solution is to have even more sex. Fitz, like all good presidential candidates, is married, though his relationship with wife Mellie (Bellamy Young) is largely on the rocks. Rhimes, always good at maximizing conflict, sets up a scenario where Olivia must make the Grant marriage believable while still keeping her affair with Fitz alive. None of this should work, but between the smart scripts and Goldwyn and Washington’s strong chemistry, the rawness of the Fitz/Olivia connection has become the dark center of a show that was already very dark.

The foremost complaint against Scandal when it debuted was that the show wasn’t “realistic” enough. And, indeed, if the level of intrigue on the show were happening in Washington on a daily basis, the world would spin rapidly off its axis. But those looking for realism in the show—or in any Rhimes series—are missing the boat. She writes in the tradition of romanticism, of larger-than-life gestures and brooding heroes overcoming overwhelming odds. Scandal tweaks this setup by blending in elements of conspiracy thrillers and more straightforward political dramas, creating something more like a Gothic romance than anything else. There’s a monster loose in Rhimes’ Washington, and that monster is, alternately, government—and the corporations that rule it—and love itself. So whether what happens on the show could happen in real life simply doesn’t matter. As always, Rhimes is going for emotional effect, and when she’s at the top of her game, few in TV are better. In addition, the series spins out of that central idea to incorporate almost every American paranoid fantasy of the last 50 years.

Scandal is full of moments when the government fails to protect its citizens because it’s too busy protecting itself—or the rich men who are its greatest benefactors. In an early second-season episode, Olivia and her associates get their hands on a piece of software that allows the government to surveil anyone at any time—a slightly fictionalized version of several real-life government programs—and instead of trying to shut it down because it’s the right thing to do, they try to shut it down because they can use it as leverage against the government to protect their client. When it turns out they’re being played, nobody remarks on how the government spying on its citizens would go against the Constitution. The show doesn’t have to. It portrays the horror of such a scenario by showing how easily Olivia and company are able to hack any computer in the nation, then assumes that the government will go right ahead and do it anyway. This basic storyline plays out over and over again. Government and corporate interests on Scandal have no one’s best interests at heart, and the few people who battle against them—including the show’s one relatively pure character, ADA David Rosen (Joshua Malina, having the time of his life)—are inevitably dragged into the incestuous maw created by the intersection of politics and money.

It seems strange to say this about a fundamentally romantic show where characters make huge declarations of love at the drop of a hat and where the plotting involves conspiracies nested within conspiracies, but Scandal is a remarkably subtle show. While watching the first season, I mostly enjoyed myself, but only on the level of a reasonably well-done soap. The series came up with a strong story—a woman who might have been carrying the president’s baby and what happens when Olivia agrees to take her on as a client—then played it out in the background of several cases of the week over the course of a shortened seven-episode order. It was fun—and the season finale was a doozy—but it also felt like Grey’s Anatomy Goes To Washington. Yet all of this turned out to be necessary foundation for the show’s exemplary second season, when it abruptly shifted into one of TV’s most entertaining shows. The cynicism about politics that was an undercurrent of season one burbled over into the main text of season two, and the series’ smartest choice in this regard was to never point out that its characters were doing very bad things.

Look again at that Sepinwall interview. Rhimes simply assumes that her viewership is savvy enough to understand that while Olivia sees herself as a fundamentally good person—she describes herself as someone who wears a white hat—the things she does ultimately erode the rule of law and eat away at citizens’ ability to trust their government. The White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the CIA and FBI—they’re all hopelessly corrupt in the world of Scandal, and Olivia is so much a part of that world that she misses the forest for the trees. She’s fallen from whatever lofty perch of ethics and morality she once held for herself, and she only realizes just how far in fleeting moments. (The series plays wonderfully off of Washington’s open, honest face in moments like this, making her a bald-faced liar who seems to believe everything she says, even when she realizes that she’s speaking falsehoods.) That there are people worse than her out there is no real comfort. Olivia Pope is a part of the system, and the system inevitably corrupts. 

On other Rhimes’ series—both good and bad—the idea of love has always pointed toward true north. It’s the shining star the characters are able to keep in their line of vision in case they get lost. (In Grey’s Anatomy’s best season, its second, so many characters carried unrequited love for so many other characters that the series occasionally seemed like a medical-drama version of Peanuts.) Because Rhimes is so good at writing relationships like this, the affair between Fitz and Olivia seems like it should serve that purpose here, and the show structures itself so that this romance—which is played as doomed and tragic—indeed does always point the way home. The problem is that the relationship itself is fundamentally corrupt, just like everything else. Fitz and Olivia feel their love powerfully, but he’s still a married man who must stay married, and she’s still his employee (at least in their campaign days). When it looks like Fitz will lose the election in one of the series’ terrific flashback episodes, Olivia blames herself for getting too close to him, for being unable to tell him why he turns the American people off because she can’t stop falling into bed with him. She doesn’t once consider that by sleeping with him, she’s upset his own fundamental alchemy. The two drag each other further into darkness, and it’s at once irresistible and driven by awful desperation.

Fitz himself is one of the show’s finest creations. Though his exterior affect is all Romney and George W. Bush—though a more moderate version of either—there’s a fair amount of Barack Obama in him as well. Where Obama supports gay marriage publicly, Fitz only does so privately (though he and Obama shared roughly the same position when the series began), and Fitz is more in favor of giant tax cuts for rich people than Obama is, but the two share rough political similarities and even more surface-level ones. Fitz overcomes a substantially better-off female political opponent in his primary battle, then makes seemingly reluctant deals with his party’s base. He gives masterful speeches and manages to find a way to break out of his sometimes-aloof manner to connect with voters, but the first half of his first term is often tugged in opposing directions by what Fitz actually wants to do and what’s politically accomplishable. The series isn’t meant to be a scathing indictment of the Obama administration: Fitz is far more of a Republican nightmare—a guy who runs on a conservative platform and ends up governing as a near-liberal moderate—than a Democratic one. But it does flirt with lefty fears about the Obama administration—that it will never do enough, that it allowed itself to be corrupted by Washington, that it continues bad programs from earlier administrations because it lacks the political courage to stop them.

Fitz and Olivia are just the show’s most prominent examples of how the characters are chewed up and spit out by the government-corporate complex and its military-industrial cousin. The CIA transformed Olivia’s employee Huck (the excellent Guillermo Diaz) from a sweet, unassuming soldier into a merciless husk of a killer. Fellow Olivia employee Abby (Darby Stanchfield) gets involved—genuinely—with David, then betrays him when she has a chance to get ahead. New recruit Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes) is revealed to be a pawn in a much larger game, an innocent girl tugged around by forces she doesn’t understand. At all times on the show, people are chewed up—by love, by the government, by rich businessmen—then spit back out. Olivia thinks she can fix these problems, but she’s blind to how the world she lives in only exacerbates them.

The great thing about Scandal is that it can be enjoyed purely as melodrama—and it’s terrific melodrama. Like most great romances, it features one hell of a plot, memorable characters, and a propulsive sense of momentum. But the longer the series goes on, the more it seems like a deeply cynical mash-up of the worst fears Americans have had about their government post-September 11. To ask Scandal to be “realistic” is to fundamentally miss what it’s trying to do. Scandal isn’t trying to re-create Washington politics any more than the swooningly romanticized West Wing was. Like that series, it re-creates Washington politics as a dream—only here, all has been lost to nightmare, and no one yet tastes the ashes.

Filed Under: TV, Scandal

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