Revisiting: ‘Scandal’

Tuesday, November 27, 2018 - 1:38pm

Kerri Washington in 'Scandal'

Kerri Washington in 'Scandal' Buy this photo
ABC

Revisiting is a series where TV writers watch, or re-watch, popular TV shows they missed when airing in their prime. Writers will retrospectively review these shows and determine if they still live up to their hype years after their peak success.

My mother was a vocal critic of “Scandal” when it premiered. She detested it. Her harshest criticisms of the show were reserved for the character of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, “Django Unchained”) — in her eyes, Olivia talked too fast, too much and was trying “too hard” to be something she “was not.” In a way, my mother could be viewed as a microcosm for America in 2012. When “Scandal” first premiered that year, it would be the first time a Black woman held the lead of a primetime network drama since the short-lived “Julia” in 1968.

My mother was not alone in her knee-jerk reaction. Responses to Olivia Pope and “Scandal” were initially so mixed, because, frankly, America had never seen a Black woman at the heart of a television program, let alone a Black female character behaving so far out of the bounds set for Black characters on television. There was an overwhelming sense of perplexity in how to handle the new frontier showrunner Shonda Rhimes was foraging.

Two short years later, I would have trouble studying during the “Scandal” season finale as my mother shouted upstairs in response to whatever plot twist was just revealed. My mother and America alike both eventually let down their barriers, fell in love with and eventually developed an unhealthy obsession with Olivia Pope and “Scandal.” For a string of years, it was one of the most watched programs on TV. So, how does it hold up?

It is no easy feat to describe “Scandal” in a typical “premise” format because, over the course of seven seasons, it constantly evolved. The inaugural season was equal parts procedural and soap opera best summarized as such: “Fixer” Olivia Pope leads the premier crisis management firm in D.C. and also happens to be sleeping with the (very married) leader of the free world, Fitzgerald Grant III. From then on, it shed its procedural aspects and transformed into a full-on political drama. By season four, the show was almost unrecognizable, becoming more “Alias” than “The West Wing,” with plotlines centering around sleeper agents, ransom and, lest we forget, government conspiracies — way too many government conspiracies.

Years from now, “Scandal” will not be remembered for its realism or substance. It will most likely be commemorated more for popularizing the phenomenon of live-tweeting. In an age of DVR and streaming platforms, “Scandal” revived appointment television. This massive popularity, though, in hindsight, led to its decline in quality. Subtly and metered build-up were substituted for overt moments easily translatable to Twitter. It’s unfortunate that “Scandal” in all of its campiness will be memorialized as trivial fare when, in actuality, its first two seasons were solid television. So today, I would like to revisit “Scandal” and give it a proper eulogy highlighting key moments through its rise, its peak and, of course, its demise.

The Rise: “The Trail” (Season 1, Episode 6)  

As I settled in to watch the first season, it took a very brief five minutes to come to the understanding that my confident assertions to non-fans that “Scandal”’s first two seasons were as good as “House of Cards” were as revisionist as a U.S. History class. It had been a while since I had seen the first season, and in my efforts to preserve the sanctity and reputation of my Lord, showrunner Shonda Rhimes, I essentially reimagined a typical ABC primetime drama as gritty, high-quality television. “Scandal” has always been a soap opera, but upon my second viewing, I have realized that this is not necessarily a negative — I still was on the edge of my seat. Early “Scandal” mastered the art of the soapy drama, lacking in true substance, but never surrendering entertainment value. The episode that best illustrates this mastery is “The Trail.”

This episode, largely told through flashbacks, takes viewers two years into the past to the early days of Grant’s presidential campaign. Pope has recently joined the team and is already making waves by proposing major changes to the team. This episode does work on two planes. By connecting the flashback to the present narrative seen in the five episodes preceding it, viewers are treated to much-needed exposition about characters’ pasts as well as insight into how character relationships began. In addition to this, we also receive evidence of Pope’s political brilliance. In earlier episodes, her characterization was direct — other characters merely talked about how great Pope was — but in “The Trail” we are able to see her single-handedly remodel Grant’s campaign for the better.

But all of these positives pale in comparison to the centerpiece of the episode: Grant and Pope’s budding affair. The episode draws on the curiosity of viewers wondering how these two became entangled. The explanation given was well worth the wait. In the beginning, “Scandal” knew how to draw out the star-crossed romance of Grant and Pope. The two were at their best when the audience knew they wanted each other, but couldn’t have each other because of some tangible force wedging them apart. At this point, it made sense: He was her boss, he was married, he was running for office. There was no way. This was “Scandal” at its best because there was a sense that it knew what kind of show it was. It was a soap opera, so it was going to be the best damn soap opera it could be.

The Peak: “A Woman Scorned” (Season 2, Episode 20)

While I have always recalled in general terms the decline in “Scandal” post-season two, upon re-watching, I finally saw how clear “Scandal”’s demise appeared on the horizon as season two drew to a close. Two episodes before the season finale, the show had reached its apex — the writers had squeezed everything out of the plot that they could. In abandoning the procedural format at the beginning of season two, the show took on two very dynamic arcs: the fallout from the revelation of the rigging at Defiance and the hunt to find the mole revealing White House secrets.

As the finale drew nigh, it became very clear that there was not a surplus of realistic places to take the plot for the following season. And with the formerly minuscule subplot of B613 encroaching on the central plot, the future of the show was sealed. In addition to this slow burn towards impracticality, in hindsight, the decision to reveal Pope and Grant’s affair to the world this early on was also a grave misfire. As aforementioned, the show was at its best in teasing out the clandestine affair between the two and the factors in their lives that keep them apart. One key factor that forced them apart was that neither one of their inner circles knew much (or anything) about the affair. As anyone on Ashley Madison will tell you, affairs get a whole lot less sexy when other people begin to find out.

In “A Woman Scorned,” First Lady Mellie threatens to reveal their affair to America on national news; Grant calls her bluff by simply deciding to abdicate the presidency for Pope. Spoiler alert: Mellie doesn’t go through with it — completely. And just like that, the show shifted before my eyes. Grant almost gave up everything for Pope. Willingly. From this moment on, the car has run out of gas and there’s nowhere to go. If he almost gave up the presidency for Pope, the audience knew that he would do anything for her, thus the potential suspense drawn out of this dynamic is now moot. All of the tension of the “chase” has disappeared. What kind of soap opera is this?

The Demise: “Run” (Season 4, Episode 10)

The competition was stiff in deciding which episode of “Scandal” was bad enough to denote its transition from waning quality to the entry into the madness that defined its final seasons. After much deliberation, it became clear that no episode did this better than “Run.” Although later seasons proved the show could include wackier plotlines, “Run” earns the title simply because it is the forefather, the trailblazer of trash. For many die-hard “Scandal” fans, this was the first time they openly questioned what the hell was happening to the show they had come to love. The episode does not boast much of a plot, but what it lacks in this respect, it compensates for in a surplus of sequences in which Kerry Washington is sweaty, panting and screaming.  In “Run,” Pope has been kidnapped and used as ransom in a larger scheme orchestrated by Vice President Andrew Nichols in order to blackmail Grant into declaring war on Angola. It hurt me to type that. Shonda, baby, what were you thinking?

Like many “Scandal” fans, the first time I watched this episode on live television, I was baffled and frankly unimpressed with a show that had once been so progressive in representation evoking chattel imagery for its Black female lead. The second time around watching, the melodrama is almost impossible not to laugh at. “Run” magnifies the growing disconnect between writers and audience. At this point in the series, it is evident that there was little to no consideration given to what type of show “Scandal” wanted to be. The great irony of this attempt is that in trying to compete with the intense content of premium channels like AMC or HBO, “Scandal” only drew more attention to its watered-down nature — coming across as a daytime soap more than ever.

Looking past the issues of “Run” as an episode, it also shifted the paradigm of the entire series moving forward. Because a kidnapping is such a traumatic event, the writers were forced to illustrate how it affected the main characters. Thus, onwards from “Run,” many characters (including Pope) underwent drastic changes that left the show pretty much unbearable to watch. Pope, rather than remaining the “chaotic good” protagonist she had always been, evolved before our eyes into “chaotic evil,” acting with little regard for anyone but herself. She was no longer the character who hooked me, and many others, into “Scandal” in the first place.

I won’t wax poetic about how even after its prime, “Scandal” still holds up primarily because Shonda Rhimes will probably never read this article, and thus I have no one to suck up to. What I will say is this: “Scandal” may not have the artistic significance of “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad,” and I wouldn’t place bets on its entry into the Library of Congress. But, in looking to the future, I highly doubt that “Scandal” will ever be a show that is forgotten. Shows like “Scandal” quickly reach legendary status and are passed down to the future generations of pop culture lovers to consume. Like guilty pleasures that have preceded it (“Dynasty” or “Beverly Hills, 90210”), I foresee “Scandal” being memorialized as a show that, while undeniably trash television, had a hand in shaping the culture of the generation that first viewed it. And who doesn’t love a little trash? 

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