Why Scandal beats House Of Cards at its own game

Why Scandal beats House Of Cards at its own game

There’s always an inherent danger when comparing two television shows. Trying to say which one is “better” is even more dangerous. Different shows try to achieve different things, even if there are surface similarities between them. But even on that surface level, Scandal and House Of Cards, two shows nominally about the machinations of those in power in Washington D.C., couldn’t be further apart. Examining them together seems like comparing apples and oranges at best, and a gross disservice at worst. Each has its own agenda, its own mode of storytelling, and its own independent goal in depicting life inside the Beltway. But in terms of explaining why people in political positions of power act in often-inscrutable ways, Scandal beats House Of Cards at its own game. 

Focusing on this particular shared theme not only allows for a more specific analysis of each, it also helps inform the way each operates. Many words have been spilled about House Of Cards’ “game-changing” nature. But take away its unique distribution model (releasing all 13 episodes of its first season at once on Netflix), and what’s left is a very good show that would do well on premium or basic cable. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it doesn’t suggest a revolution, either. In reality, the non-traditional release says more about distribution models than about the show’s quality. While the numerous ways in which we can watch House Of Cards feel like the potential beginning of a new era, the question remains this: How does Netflix’s system of allowing viewers to passively start watching the next episode translate into an audience’s likelihood to do so when it comes to this show in particular?

Scandal doesn’t have the luxury of having the next episode immediately available for viewing. But that limitation is actually a strength, in that the show has used cliffhangers, a soap-opera staple, to ensure the gaps between each installment increase the fervor to view the next one as soon as humanly possible. The rising ratings for the show this season, its second, suggest this mode of storytelling is working. But what’s also working is the program’s transition this season from mere soap opera to straight-up opera. What was once essentially a procedural about Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and her team of fixers helping keep politicians’ dirty secrets from airing in public has turned into an ever-crazier aria about hidden identities, assassination attempts, and rigged elections.

In theory, all these increasingly ludicrous storylines should utterly undo Scandal. But saying House Of Cards is a better show than Scandal because its education-bill storyline feels more realistic is missing the point. “Realism” is an overrated commodity in storytelling, at least when it comes to plot machinations. Scandal sings this season because its insane storytelling matches—in fact, derives from—its characters’ incredible passions. These are not people who simply want something. These are people who crave something. That difference not only defines the difference in the characterizations in the two shows, but helps open up the ways in which they go about their episodic business.

There’s something to be said for the efficient execution of tried-and-true storytelling. House Of Cards didn’t have to invent a new kind of narrative, because it would be released in a new kind of distribution. But efficiency can often be dull, as Scott Tobias recently described. House Of Cards is nowhere near the level of “deliberate mediocrity.” Not even close. But there is a deliberate mode at work in every frame of the program, one that speaks to a show that desperately wants to stay inside the lines, even while pretending to rip the cover off Washington’s seedy underbelly. Look at perhaps the most representative shot in the series: Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) rubbing what looks like blood across a headline about a vanquished political foe, only to have the show reveal it’s just barbeque sauce. House Of Cards is a show that hints at beating hearts under its main characters’ cold exteriors, but is often afraid to let them reveal those desires.

Scandal doesn’t have that problem, since its characters not only wear their hearts upon their sleeves, they have those hearts splintered on a nearly weekly basis. House Of Cards characters speak in whispered double-talk. Scandal characters scream in orgasmic prose. That screaming can be off-putting for people who hear “gladiators in suits” and quickly switch the channel. But the rapid-fire dialogue, a staple of programs from Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes, actually serves a higher purpose beyond simply shoving an incredible number of syllables into each sentence. Scandal characters talk that quickly because everyone treats what they’re saying as the last sentence they may ever utter. The dialogue directly relates to the heightened passions of all involved, from President Grant Fitzgerald (Tony Goldwyn) down to Pope’s hacker/former black-ops assassin Huck (Guillermo Diaz). All these people lack the filters that those on House Of Cards use to keep secrets closely guarded. 

As an extension of those filters (or lack thereof), the series progress at markedly different paces. Part of this pacing comes from those distribution differences: House Of Cards has a defined number of episodes that will absolutely be produced, whereas Scandal has been saved from cancellation twice in its brief lifespan. But those distribution models alone don’t entirely define the show’s storytelling approaches. Yes, House Of Cards has the luxury of knowing it can plant the seed for something in its second hour that will pay off in episode 10. But that approach also assumes that viewers will still be interested in that particular story point eight hours later. 

In Olivia Pope’s world, by contrast, things move fast. Extremely fast. Whiplash-inducing fast. Part of this lies in Scandal leaning into its more operatic extremes in the second season. But it’s also a conscious decision to honor the audience’s investment in the show and pay things off in the short term rather than the long. Plenty of shows on the bubble in recent years have held story as hostage, promising greater things to come, should more episodes be ordered. NBC’s short-lived science-fiction series The Event comes to mind, with its season-ending cliffhanger that really should have happened at the end of the pilot. In reality, audiences fled The Event long before that reveal, which turned the season finale into a series finale. People who watch TV today are intensely savvy about the ways in which the sausage is made, and can smell stalling techniques from a mile away at this point. As such, there’s an appreciation from some quarters when a show like Scandal takes off the brakes and drives wildly into parts unknown.

Sure, the unknown is terrifying, and could result in Scandal turning into a parody of itself, much like Revenge has this season. But given how carefully controlled so much entertainment is these days, isn’t that uncertainty liberating? How much is really known, even under the most ideal conditions? On a micro level, House Of Cards has some surprising elements. But on a macro level, the introduction of Element A indicates, nearly without fail, the impending arrival of Problem B, which will be compounded by Character C. We’ve seen it before, even if the way in which we’re seeing it feels revolutionary. Simply deploying an expected result six hours after introducing it speaks to mechanical integrity, not passionate storytelling. 

After all, what really should drive the story on any show is its players’ passions. Understanding what these people want to achieve informs drama, explain decisions, and creates conflict. When the problems a television show places upon its characters feel isolated from those attempting to overcome them, the results feel stilted. Trying to gauge exactly what Frank Underwood in House Of Cards wants takes work, and it’s not work that comes from the show being purposely obtuse about his motivations. Rather, it comes from House Of Cards not doing enough to make Underwood more than a facsimile of similar characters in other political dramas. The fourth-wall-breaking lines Underwood delivers to the camera helps sidestep some expositional problems, but don’t really serve as the Shakespearean asides the show sometimes treats them as. 

By contrast, Representative Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) is an example of House Of Cards tapping into a character’s emotional desires first and then figuring out how that person will fit into the larger scheme of the show later. Russo, especially in the first few hours, is the show’s heart and soul. Underwood uses those failings in the House Of Representatives-based chess match that drives much of the season’s plot. But it’s far more fascinating to see Russo roll a joint far from the halls of power, or retreat into himself as his inner demons force him into a corner from which no escape seems possible. Russo is one of the few characters driven by personal passions, not the nebulous pursuit of power. 

While Olivia Pope’s feelings for President Grant on Scandal are undoubtedly soapier than Underwood’s desire to undo President Walker on House Of Cards, they’re also easier to understand by those viewing the show. In short: Scandal bypasses intellect in favor of emotion every time. That isn’t to say the show is unintelligent. It simply means that when presented with a choice between following what seems logical vs. what feels intuitive, it chooses Door No. 2 every single time. That leads to much messier storytelling, but also storytelling that results in more interesting, unpredictable drama. This isn’t a show like Glee, which sacrifices characters in favor of landing specific, intermittently emotional moments. This is a show in which people live in one emotional moment that leads into the next, and those moments just sometimes happen to affect things like the election of a president.

If that makes Scandal less realistic than House Of Cards, that’s fine. Again, realism is overrated in television. Every single program employs shortcuts, contrivances, and liberties that don’t hold up under close scrutiny. Were Scandal trying to depict the real-life machinations of the political process, this would be a huge problem. But the show isn’t passing itself off as that. However, it does have a lot to say about people’s emotional underpinnings that govern those far from the District of Columbia. It turns those passions all the way to 11, and has since the pilot. But this season, those passions have been paired with a plot that is ludicrous on the surface, but makes perfect sense, due to the characters responsible for it. Once Scandal firmly established that its characters are willing to defend certain things at all costs, anything they did thereafter fit into that mindset. There’s a ceiling to what can happen within House Of Cards while keeping the show within the realm of believability. But anything goes on Scandal. With this framework firmly in place, there’s almost no way for Scandal to go too far, short of alien invasion. (And even then, we’d probably learn that Olivia Pope agreed to defend them back when they first arrived at Area 51.) 

This fundamental difference in approach to their characters results in House Of Cards being a handsomely mounted but often hermetically sealed program, while Scandal is an open wound, one that not only doesn’t try to hide its baldly emotional underpinnings, but instead draws strength from them. Neither show particularly yields true insight into the ways in which Washington operates. But Scandal has quite a bit to say about how people in general operate. By extension, it also has a lot to say about the type of television people respond to in this ever-splintered viewing environment. In a year in which almost all ratings are down, Scandal has gone up. Its insane storytelling really isn’t insane at all. Many want to dub House Of Cards the future of television as a whole. In terms of distribution, this may be true. But by giving audiences what they want, and then giving them so much more than they ever expected, Scandal is the show those looking toward the future of television should be aiming to actually produce, regardless of the medium in which it is viewed.