A long, long time ago – in 2012 – Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) was “handling” D.C.’s scandals in a white power suit, rigging a presidential election and having a secret, steamy affair with the President of the United States. Normal “Scandal” things. 2017, however, has proven to be no time for normal. With explosions, a murder (gasp!) and political inconsistencies galore, the sixth season premiere of the Shondaland drama returned without any intention of reining in the ridiculousness.
“Scandal” made no attempt to hide its political leanings last season, as a parody of Donald Trump emerged in the form of sleazy oil-tycoon Hollis Doyle (Gregg Henry, “Gilmore Girls”). The stabs were anything but subtle, as the fictionalized nominee hopeful portrayed all-too-familiar characteristics of unsubstantiated candidness, an affinity for corruption and an unfortunate hair-do. Furthermore, the episode where fake-Trump is booted out of the running for the Republican nomination by ex-First Lady and Senator Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young, “The Freebie”) is called “Trump Card,” just in case there was any ambiguity.
This agenda comes as no surprise. Creator Shonda Rhimes, along with her three TGIT leading ladies Kerry Washington, Viola Davis (“How To Get Away With Murder”) and Ellen Pompeo (“Grey’s Anatomy”), released a powerful endorsement of Hillary Clinton in the spring of 2016. But the “Scandal” cast claims to be leaving real-world politics behind as the sixth season promises to carry a different tune. With the first five episodes of the season filmed before the November elections, the narrative will be a counterpoint, rather than a parallel, to the current political outcome, Rhimes told the Hollywood Reporter.
Perhaps it’s better this way, for politics was never “Scandal” ’s strong suit. Instead, the series turns its focus to telling a compelling story and churning out some goddam entertaining drama. Season six opens in the final moments of the presidential election between Mellie Grant and the Democratic nominee Frankie Vargas (Ricardo Chavira, “Desperate Housewives”). The deciding state of the race – of all places – comes down to California.
Irritating political paradoxes aside, Rhimes is a master of building compelling female protagonists. Only a handful of shows in recent memory have been able to pull off a character arc as drastic and fulfilling as the one portrayed in Mellie Grant. The once-detestable, scorned First Lady bitterly standing in the way of Olivia and Fitz’s star-crossed love affair has gradually – and surprisingly – transformed into the most relatable character on the show. Earlier seasons chipped away at the ice queen with trauma: a tub of fried chicken and moonshine in hand, Mellie’s narrative as a mother mourning the loss of her son was heartbreaking and, for once, completely believable.
But, ultimately, building complexity through pity is not the Shondaland style. Rather, strong women are formed when they rise in spite of adversity, and Mellie is the ultimate badass. Facing the setbacks that come with being a woman in politics to dumping the POTUS for her own shot at the oval office is ballsy, to say the least. She’s strong, flawed and wildly interesting. In a landmark fifth-season episode, Mellie filibusters against the defunding of Planned Parenthood (even though she’s a Republican, but we’ll let it slide). She, perhaps single-handedly, embodies the kind of optimistic, fictionalized politics that make “Scandal” different from the rest of TV’s D.C.-based dramas.
This season also promises a continuation of the unlikely – yet totally amazing – friendship blooming between Olivia and Mellie. Both screwed over by the same guy and willing to go to any lengths for control of the White House, the duo stole the best scene of the season six premiere: commiserating in style, they drink champagne in a marble bathtub.
Once you get past the fuzzy politics and the occasional bouts of cringe-y writing, the sixth season premiere of “Scandal” delivered on the over-the-top theatrics we all knew to expect. Although the episode was (unfortunately) devoid of angsty side-eyes and hot-and-heavy make out sessions in White House closets, it was nevertheless entertaining. Olivia Pope is finally back, this time with a ginormous red prada bag covering up her the actress’s baby bump, handling business as usual.