ABC’s ‘Scandal’: A Non-Guilty Pleasure

SCANDAL-OUS SPOILERS AHEAD…

KERRY WASHINGTON

If you’ve found yourself wearing a lot of white hats, or drinking wine from giant glasses while eating popcorn, or shouting into your cell phone “it’s handle,” you might be addicted to ABC’s Scandal. Don’t worry, though — you aren’t alone. In fact, the series is popping up everywhere these days, including the windows of Sax Fifth Avenue, Halloween costumes, and all over the Internet —  from tweets to memes to drinking games.

For the unconverted, Scandal (which began airing in the spring of 2012) is a Washington D.C. series about a “fixer” named Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) hired by politicians to, well, “fix” things (affairs, murders, rapes). She and her team (They call themselves “Gladiators”) help control the media spin, often tamper with crime scenes, and silence people with threats and money (Sounds pretty scandalous, doesn’t it?). At first, the show seemed like it might follow a Law and Order kind of formula (a new case each episode), but it quickly moves in another, more soap opera-styled, direction. The central storyline is about Olivia’s connection to the President of the United States (played by Tony Goldwyn). She worked on his election team (including helping to fix the election to get him in office) and then had an affair with him. The White House and Olivia’s team constantly find themselves intertwined, as do Olivia and the president. They have a very high-school-on-again-off-again relationship that results in many heated telephone calls and make-up sex.

Many people have their “guilty pleasures,” but I’ve rarely been someone who watches “bad television.” I’m often out for more than just mere entertainment, which is what has surprised me about my love for Scandal. For starters, I don’t watch many shows anymore on the big networks, and I knew that Shonda Rhimes, who is best known for her sappy medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, created the show, which gave me even more pause.

So how did I start watching Scandal? Believe it or not, it’s all Lisa Kudrow’s fault. In late summer, I saw an article about how Kudrow was going to be guest starring on the third season of the series; being a sucker for Kudrow’s post-Friends work (The Comeback is one of the greatest shows ever), I decided to give Scandal a try. If it’s good enough for Kudrow, I thought, it’s good enough for me.

Thanks to Netflix, I spent a few weeks binge watching all of season one and two in preparation for the current season. I couldn’t stop. Some nights I watched three or four episodes in a row. The whole time, I kept thinking, “This is so wonderfully bad. It is safe to say I’ve finally found my guilty pleasure.

There are a million reasons why this show should be terrible. First off, the storylines don’t even attempt to be believable, (I mean come on, a Republican president with a gay chief-of-staff and a strong black female mistress?), and the constant twists and turns in the show are sometimes completely out of left field with little prep work done (Mellie’s recent flashback rape by her father-in-law, anyone?). The series is action-packed, sometimes leaving little time for full development of ideas or characters (Quinn getting tortured then having sex with Charlie). Yet, in spite of these issues, the show remains absolutely amazing.

Perhaps it is because Scandal makes no real attempt at being realistic that is allows itself to truly live in its own made-up and bizarre world — one that looks a lot like ours, but where things don’t really work the same. These “scandals” are often too easily solved, while other issues seem to constantly be spiraling to a place of no return. People quickly throw their ethics out the window and then kind of laugh about it later.

There are also the issues of race and sexuality that don’t get explored with much depth in the series. Many have praised the show for featuring a strong black female lead, and I will give them that (The casting is very refreshing, and Washington is great), but the show isn’t very groundbreaking in the race department, or if it is, it’s groundbreaking in how it almost entirely ignores the issue. That’s not to say that race needs to be front and center, but at times, it seems intentionally not discussed. In fact, politics or social issues are not a huge part of the show, even though it’s about the political world.

The same can be said of the gay characters on the show. Cyrus (Jeff Perry) is often one of the most unethical characters and seems to have nothing that really grounds him (Why does he do most of the things he does?). His relationship with his husband James (Dan Bucantinsky) is not only extremely unrealistic, but it is poorly written. Every time James opens his mouth, I want to fast forward. He’s a walking cliché, while Cyrus plays into the homosexual villain stereotype (We rarely see a different side of him like we get see with other villainous characters like Mellie).

Scandal-Season-3

The other major flaw of the show is that Fitz (the president) is not a very compelling character, nor do we really see him being a good president on the show. This flaw is problematic because many of the characters throw their ethics out to keep him in office. Why? What’s so great about Fitz? The writers don’t seem to know either. He seems pretty unworthy of the sacrifices made for him. But even with these issues, which normally bother me quite a bit, I can’t stop watching.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it is that draws me to this show because of everything I’ve listed above. While the storytelling can have its problems, one thing I truly admire is that a big network TV show has actually made a successful series about a group of people who all do really terrible things (affairs, fixing elections, lying to the American public, killing people, secretly filming people, tampering with crime scenes, fucking over the only nice person on the show, Joshua Malina’s David Rosen, who has become the punching bag of the series). It’s refreshing that there aren’t clear good guys and bad guys on Scandal  — for the most part. Just when you think someone is all good or all bad, the writers throw in a gripping twist. This is more in line with what so many of the cable channels have been doing for years. People like complicated characters. People don’t have to be all good or all bad.

A lot of the success of the show is also owed to Kerry Washington, who pulls you in with every pout or tremble of her lips (There’s a lot of pouting and trembling). Plus, she wears these amazing cape coats all the time and gives a lot of great speeches about white hats and her gut (which is funny because her gut gets in her trouble over and over again, and she is rarely ethical, no matter what color her imagined hat is). Washington earned her Emmy nomination, even if she did lose the statue.

Scandal -- Screengrab from exclusive EW.com clip.

The pace of the show also plays a major role in what keeps people watching — and not only watching but watching in real time. How people watch TV is changing. People are no longer bound by when a show airs. I remember growing up and making sure I was home on Thursday nights to watch Seinfeld because there wasn’t any other option. That’s not the case anymore. Some networks or shows seem unwilling to accept this. Scandal, on the other hand, has found a solution  — at least for the moment. Nearly every fast-moving episode ends with a cliffhanger, which makes the risk of spoilers even greater: This past week ended with the vice-president murdering her husband. Scandal is attempting to make watching later more problematic, which is working.

The series has also used social networking to their advantage. From the beginning, the cast has live-Tweeted the show, making it an interactive experience. Kerry Washington often answers fan questions, gives funny reactions, and provides the brands of her fabulous clothing. This is truly television for the 21st century.

The episodes move as quickly as the shutter-effect they use to splice scenes together, but can this pace be maintained? How long can a show keep going when their formula is to constantly shock the audience with new secrets and plot moves? The show might be reaching its peak with only two-and-a-half seasons under its belt. Only time will tell. But even if it’s short-lived, Scandal has made an impact and truly entered the pop culture zeitgeist.

Tune in Thursday, December 12th for the mid-season finale.

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