Gene Seymour: ‘Scandal’ Empowers as Much as It Enthralls

(There’s a lot to be said for what “Scandal” has done by merely existing, says critic Gene Seymour).

When, about a year ago, the first season of “Scandal” sped to a roaring-and-tumbling climax, I had decided that my own tagline for this ABC nighttime political-intrigue soap was “The West Wing: The Anime Version.” What I hadn’t yet decided was whether I meant it as a compliment. We are now all a year older (if not wiser), “Scandal” is about to draw the Venetian blinds on its second season this week – and neither my assessment nor my quandary has budged an inch.

Crisis manager Judy Smith worked for Monica Lewinsky before helping develop “Scandal,” so one is free to speculate as to the intersections of fantasy and plausibility.

Created by Shonda Rhimes, show-runner for the 11-years-and-still-running “Grey’s Anatomy” medical drama, “Scandal,” for those of you otherwise occupied on Thursday evenings, is about a multicultural crisis-management team based in Washington, D.C. led by the sleek, brittle and commanding Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). Her pep squad includes a victim of sexual abuse, a disgraced federal prosecutor and a borderline-psychotic ex-Special Op skilled in the persuasive use of duct tape, pliers and various sharp objects on those reluctant to speak to him with unguarded candor. They prefer to think of themselves as “gladiators” as opposed to more common terms as “fixers” or “spin doctors.”

Because my needs as a viewer are, well, “more common” than not, I would have been perfectly OK with a kind of “fix-of-the-week” format in which this motley, semi-damaged collection of personality quirks comes through each week for some high-and-mighty shmuck in trouble. But it’s not that simple. (It never is.) It turns out that Olivia’s recent past life was that of a Republican campaign operative who helped elect the incumbent POTUS, a vulpine, mercurial fellow named Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), through what turn out to have been illegal means. Not insignificantly, gentle reader, Olivia and “Fitz” have the galloping hots for each other – a static situation that has both the Machiavellian First Lady (Bellamy Young) and the fiercely loyal, openly gay White House Chief-of-Staff (Jeff Perry) engaging in their own frantic, far clumsier attempts at crisis management. Because Rhimes was abetted in “Scandal”‘s development by Judy Smith, a former deputy press secretary under the Bush Administration and a crisis management specialist who counts Monica Lewinsky and Michael Vick as former clients, one is free to speculate as to the occasional intersections of fantasy and plausibility in the series – except for the part about a liberal Republican White House. Like that’ll happen! Then again, maybe, it is, right now, except in name only …

Whatever. Plausible or not, the show has become a phenomenon, even an obsession for its fans – though I sometimes wonder if the frenzy this show arouses in its fans is a result of its wackadoo momentum. “Scandal” insists that all its characters, even those with oozing southern drawls, speak at a high-speed pitch as if they’re rushing to dub the right English words over the original Japanese so they synch everything before moving to the next frame. (I do not use the anime analogy lightly.) The action likewise seems fired from howitzers; POTUS loves Olivia, then he doesn’t, then he does and the First Lady’s about to expose him and then he decides he’s not running until he decides he is … Which is a lot like the earlier plot stream in which the chief-of-staff is about to have his journalist husband killed just as they adopt a baby because the latter (um, the husband, not the baby, I think) is about to testify in federal court about stealing the election which then … I know D.C. can be a sociopath theme park at times. But I often wonder whether “Star Trek” is more like real life.

It is no surprise that the more ardent fans of “Scandal” are African-American women.

Still, while it may not comfortably fit my own standards for political melodrama, there’s a lot to be said (and not nearly enough has been) for what “Scandal” has done by merely existing. It is no surprise that many of its more ardent fans are African-American women. (I know of at least three who hold parties for every new installment.) They are so galvanized and inspired by the presence of a strong young black woman as the focal point of a weekly network series that they’re apparently willing to forgive her dalliances with not one, but two white men. (Do not ask who the other one is, OK? One crisis at a time …)

Rhimes, who is also African-American (as is Smith, by the way), broke ground on her previous prime-time soap operas with their no-sweat treatment of interracial romance; she carries this impulse into “Scandal” with the same offhanded generosity of spirit. Even more admirable is the way the show depicts the chief-of-staff’s complicated relationship with his husband, as well as their scenes of PG-rated intimacy that would have been unimaginable on commercial television even a decade ago. The show empowers as much as it enthralls – and the ultimate outcome of such storytelling may be far more earth-shattering and transformative than whatever happens to Olivia, her friends and lovers this Thursday night. I’m not planning any parties – but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t celebrate.



Gene Seymour is The Washington Spectator‘s critic-at-large. He spent more than 30 years working for daily newspapers, the last 18 of them with Newsday as a feature writer, jazz columnist and movie critic. He has written for The Nation, Los Angeles Times, Film Commentand American History. Follow him @WashSpec.\

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