By Alec Stern, Senior Arts Editor
Published April 14, 2014
I’ve never written about “Scandal.” I’ve especially never called into question its realism or legitimacy as a political drama. For the past three years, I’ve enjoyed the series for exactly what it is — a guilty pleasure. Sure, at times the Shonda Rhimes series can be more poignant or more significant than typical ABC fare (like “Revenge” or “Killer Women”). But even at its best, “Scandal” is simply a good primetime soap — crazy, crass and shocking. Season three, however, has pushed the boundaries of what’s acceptable. Even in “Scandal” ’s soapy, hyper-fictionalized world, what the hell is going on? White hat’s off, crazy hat’s on.
After its blink-and-miss-it 7-episode first season, “Scandal” grew into a massive hit for ABC midway through its second season when its ratings steadily climbed until hitting a series high in the 2013 finale. Recently though, it would seem “Scandal” ’s flame burned bright but quick. Given its never-ending twists and turns, it’s no surprise that a little “Scandal” fatigue has begun to set in. There’s a limit to how far and how fast you can push the boundaries, and I think Cyrus Beene potentially allowing a bomb to go off at a state senator’s funeral, or a teenager bargaining her virginity for a college acceptance might just be that limit.
The back half of season three’s 18-episode order has seen the rails come off — throwing any caution or common sense to the wind. In turn, the series’ heightened drama, sexual antics and topsy-turvy narrative has become a parody of itself. Concurrently, Olivia Pope — this supposedly groundbreaking female character — has continued to regress from the season opener.
Whereas Olivia was once a capable and strong professional woman — the anti-Ally McBeal or even Meredith Grey — season three has seen her become a fragile, bumbling mess. Even worse, her greatest flaw is the man she is so devoted to. Olivia Pope continues to allow herself to be marginalized by Fitz, subservient to his every whim. And despite announcing in the series premiere that “she doesn’t do crying,” Olivia has shed tears in nearly every episode because of her relationship with Fitz.
“Scandal” ’s story has also faltered this season. In case anyone had forgotten, the first and second seasons — for the most part — featured a mix of procedural and serialized elements, a combination that grounded “Scandal” ’s oftentimes frantic narrative. Its case-of-the-week format separated Pope and Associates from the White House, allowing for much-needed breaks between each of the series’ defining entities. But Fitz’s reelection campaign has brought the two closer than ever, effectively changing the series’ DNA. Even more, its over-the-top storylines come closer and closer to eclipsing the brink of comprehension with each passing week.
I’m not making any claims about “Scandal” ’s believability. It’s unfair to criticize a soap opera’s realism, unlike other political dramas. Conversely, “Homeland” ’s misguided third season was flawed precisely because its believability was sacrificed in favor of action. The difference is “Homeland” operates under the assumption of realism — when its plausibility suffers, so does its worth. “Scandal” never promised realism, which is not to discount any of its success. But even “Grey’s Anatomy” — a show that has featured a male pregnancy and more natural disasters than I’d care to count — respects its own confines more strictly than the Kerry Washington series. “Scandal” ’s universe has no rules, which doesn’t make it exciting; It makes it sloppy.
Above all, it’s the repetition that is killing “Scandal.” How many late-night Olivia-Jake phone calls — which end with Olivia declaring with finality, “Goodbye, Jake” — is too many? How many times must Olivia and Fitz have the same passionate argument in the Oval Office? “Scandal” ’s love triangle has reached an extreme level of saturation, diminishing the likability of all those involved.
These issues of character complicate “Scandal” ’s end game. How are we supposed to root for the series’ central pairing when it’s so obviously toxic for Olivia? How are we supposed to root for Olivia and Fitz when Olivia is not his only mistress? Lest we forget that Cyrus had a pregnant Amanda Tanner murdered to preserve Fitz’s reputation. And how are we supposed to root for Olivia and Fitz when with each passing episode, it’s Mellie who truly deserves our sympathy and attention. Bellamy Young’s nuanced, delectable performance is soap opera done right, though it demonizes not only Fitz, but also the Olivia-Fitz pairing.
With that being said, even Mellie’s arc has become significantly flawed. Her storyline is defined by her rape, perpetrated by her husband’s father, as revealed through flashbacks in an earlier season three episode. Sexual assault is a crutch Shonda Rhimes has turned to in all three of her series — though far more effectively in the 2010 episode of “Private Practice,” “Did You Hear What Happened to Charlotte King?” In that series, a majority of the fourth season was dedicated to the episode’s titular character’s experience — “what happened” to Charlotte King was a crucial journey for every character, significantly elevating the quality of Rhimes’s lesser “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff. “Scandal” can’t make any of these claims. The incident between Mellie and her father-in-law was as quickly addressed as it was turned into yet another contrived melodramatic mystery (Is Jerry really Fitz’s son?), not to mention the fact that Mellie uses her rape as leverage to ensure her father-in-law’s support in an upcoming election. In stark contrast to “Private Practice,” “Scandal” ’s rape undercuts a serious subject, neither giving it the sufficient attention nor respect as it serves as a B plot for a secondary character.
“Scandal” ’s frenetic third season — at times “24,” at times “Grey’s Anatomy” on steroids — comes to an early close this week (its episode order was cut from 22 to 18 to accommodate Washington’s pregnancy). And I’ll admit, I’m eager to see many of the plots come to fruition, if for no other reason than leaving this whole mess behind us. After Fitz’s first election, prior to the first season of “Scandal,” Olivia left the White House to pursue her own life, apart from her tumultuous affair and hectic lifestyle. Here’s hoping season four will have her make the same realization.
“Scandal” needs fixing, but it’s not up to Olivia Pope to solve every problem. Shonda Rhimes is going to have to handle this one.