On the Politics of ‘Scandal’

On the Politics of ‘Scandal’

ABC’s hit show, created by Shonda Rhimes and starring Kerry Washington, is a truly original political soap opera.


Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope, a political operative who is having an affair with the president. (Courtesy of ABC.)

I freely admit I was late to the wackadoodle political party that is ABC’s Scandal, now hurtling toward a second-season finale on a TV screen near you. After all, it was created by Shonda Rhimes, who managed with Grey’s Anatomy to make both General Hospital and Paddy Chaevsky’s 1971 film screed The Hospital look like models of medical-drama accuracy and decorum. But in chronicling the exploits of Olivia Pope, a political operative-for-hire who has conducted a torrid affair with a married Republican president, Rhimes has built a show that can accommodate election rigging, assassination attempts, Supreme Court Justice–bullying and a gay chief-of-staff who’s married to an investigative reporter. Who would pass up all this for high-minded competition like CBS’ Sherlock Holmes pastiche Elementary? One of the best things about Scandal is that its multilayered storytelling and pacing are as sophisticated as any of the more classy, high-falutin’ cable shows like Mad Men or Game of Thrones.

Kerry Washington stars as Pope, a woman so fierce her stiletto heels seem to have left track marks on everyone on her staff, yet a woman so romantic, she’ll enthusiastically accede to President Fitzgerald Grant’s make-out sessions in a White House closet because she believes that true love is the greatest power of all. Washington is currently the only black actor playing a lead character in a hit prime-time network series, and if you need to reach back to Diahann Carroll’s 1968 series Julia to find a similarly stand-alone black heroine, I’m obliged to point out that Julia sank in the ratings during its second season, while Scandal just keeps getting more popular. The Hollywood Reporter claimed in February that an average episode of Scandal generates 2,200 tweets per minute, making it an American Idol–sized social-media phenomenon, but without the screechy melismas.

Indeed, part of the allure of Scandal is that it gives Pope her melancholy dignity while everyone else around her does the screeching. This extends to the impossibly moderate but all-too-believably WASP president, who is portrayed by Tony Goldwyn as though he’s perennially late for an assignation on a yacht. A brooding ditherer (think JFK plus Bush II divided by Nixonian gloom), President Grant, more commonly referred to as Fitz, wasn’t even aware that Pope and her minions helped manipulate the vote that got him elected. Behind his back, there is constant huggermugger, as Pope, the president’s former campaign communications director, targets White House opponents for smears and even death, courtesy of Guillermo Diaz’s Huck, the fitfully functioning psychopath with a heart of gold who’s loyal to Pope unto death—others’ or his own.

Ostensibly, Pope runs a company that helps clients elude public scandal. If the series started out as a typical case-of-the-week political procedural, with Pope and her team hired to buff the reputations of both innocent and corrupt DC denizens, the current season really took off, both creatively and as a pop sensation, by centering the action inside the White House and making the president’s loveless marriage (he’s recently asked for a divorce) and his eternal lust for Olivia (a lust that’s mad, as in mutually assured destruction) take center stage.

As a result of this new refocusing, a big part of the kick in Scandal is the way women are shown to do the dirty work usually reserved for men in stories like this. The vice president portrayed by Kate Burton makes Dick Cheney look like a more bumptious Gerald Ford—her contempt for what she perceives as President Fitz’s lack of guile or appetite to chew up and spit out the Constitution is gleefully palpable. It’s one thing for Emily VanCamp to scheme out her daddy issues on ABC’s former hot-mess-sensation Revenge; it’s another to have Burton (no network’s idea of a young-demo draw) do a sly, down ’n’ dirtier Hillary Clinton in repeated, inventive power-grabs that include trying to re-shape the Supreme Court.

That’s the thing about Scandal: It feints in the direction of harrumphing about The State Of American Politics, but its real focus is its intense interest with the politics of gender and race. Jeff Perry, a veteran character actor, is currently giving the performance of his career as Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene, who started off as tortured about his sexuality as he was by his self-surprised willingness to execute dirty tricks. Currently, his reasonably happy union with snippy reporter James Novack (Dan Bucatinsky) is grounding Cyrus sufficiently to let him maintain his nefarious side at work while being a loving husband and father. As for Kerry Washington, well, let’s put it this way: I see the freedom Shonda Rhimes has granted her to be the Pope of light-skinned darkness as so empowering that she was able to withstand and transcend what Quentin Tarantino did to her as an object of chained desire in Django Unchained.

Praise for Scandal has frequently been couched in terms its exhilaratingly nutty and frenetically paced its scenarios. And sure, that helps carry you past suspension of disbelief that, say, energy-industry tycoon Hollis Doyle (an oily Gregg Henry) could get into a White House elevator and have guns pulled on him by both a contract killer and Huck without a shot being fired or a security guard aware of any of this. But the best thing I can say about Scandal is that it makes its own kind of history, that Shonda Rhimes—who until now has evinced little talent for much more than attracting TV viewers by keeping unlikely couples coupling—has managed to do an end run around everything from The Manchurian Candidate to the too-solemn Netflix version of House of Cards, and has come up with a political soap opera that’s truly original. Scandal is pure escapism for anyone who just wants to escape, but nutritious grist for pop sociology for anyone who wants to gobble down his or her junk food that way, too.

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