In which we talk about Scandal

Posted on: April 5, 2015

To pass the days while suffering from the flu this winter, I decided to catch up on the show Scandal. Currently in its fourth season, I’d previously stayed away from the show because it seemed like the kind of show that revels in its own intensity, such as which might manifest as a constant stream of shocking twists. And though I am comfortably a person who enjoys  filling my leisure time with television, it turns out I do not enjoy the narrative whiplash that comes from regularly being blown away from my perch at the very edge of my seat; it’s stressful, and, not to put too fine a point on it, if I wanted stress, I wouldn’t spend so much time watching tv.

But then I happened to catch the very first episode of Scandal one night, and even though it was obvious from the very beginning that it would one day be overtaken by its love for its own voice, it was equally clear exactly why the show had become such a hit. Certainly, Quinn’s first day on the job might have been a better audience introduction to this world if Quinn weren’t such nitwit, but the central scandal of the hour and the beginning of the season-long story were briskly told, and the twists came organically enough to make you want to see how things will unfold, rather than roll your eyes at their ludicrousness. All in all, the 8-episode first season is a perfectly serviceable procedural, with just enough momentum of the ongoing story scattered in among the cases of the week.

What surprising, then, is how quickly everything falls apart at the end of the season, when we discover that “Quinn” is actually an alias, a secret identity somehow constructed to hide something terrible from her past. And, while it may seem that I’m picking on Quinn, and I could, fairly, because she’s terrible, the problem isn’t so much which character they chose to focus on, rather, it’s that they chose to focus on a regular character at all. With one plot-twist, the show demonstrated a pretty surprising lack of understanding that the audience should not care about any of these characters beyond their ability to fix convoluted problems.

Because, it doesn’t take much in the way of close inspection to see that just about all of the characters on this show are pretty terrible. Quinn goes from skittish nitwit with a secret past to forcing a unofficial government security agency to make her an agent, not because she wants to help anyone, but because she gets a rush out of torturing people. A shadowy security agency that she knows of from when they initially had to force Huck into torturing people by threatening his family, and then eventually spat him out after breaking him mentally, via process that Jake – who has killed a number of people, one them slowly so it wouldn’t look like the work of a professional – also underwent, yet he somehow still manages have conversations and maintain eye contact, rather than breathlessly gawping like a stranded bass that gets 5 o’clock shadow by noon.

It seems unfair to lump Abby in with this murderer’s row simply for being a pill, but my god the woman is unpleasant. Quinn may have killed a man while dressed in a very unflattering outfit that included fishnet stockings, but Abby gleefully calls a woman a whore for having casual sex with a variety of partners in the first episode and does not miss an opportunity as the series continues to revel in another woman’s failings. She’s a grown-up version of a high school mean girl, except one who has simply aged, rather than matured.

Abby, however shrill, does not have a monopoly on lacking maturity. On the contrary, the central romantic relationship of the show, that between Olivia and Fitz, seems like what you’d get if Chuck and Blair from Gossip Girl somehow ended up in the White House. I imagine the show views O. and F. more as Romeo and Juliette, star-crossed lovers destined for tragedy, kept apart not because of bad blood between their houses but because he’s the married President of the United States and she is not his wife. But whether it’s Romeo and Juliette or Chuck and Blair – who were both expert schemers in addition to being star-crossed, which probably accounts for their outlasting their Shakespearean counterparts – the point remains that endless romantic hurdles keeping lovers apart really only makes sense in a story about teenagers, because part of being an adult should mean being able to figure that shit out.

However, the worst part about Fitz & Olivia’s relationship is not the general immaturity of it, but that every one of their romantic encounters – and I mean literally every single one – begins with her saying No and him overriding her. This may not have been so noticeable when viewing an episode one at a time, with a week or sometimes longer between episodes. But one after another after another, it’s unavoidable. And it’s upsetting, to say the least.

Yet, somehow, despite all of these terrible characters, I’m still watching the show. In fact, I’ve gone through 3 and 1/2 episodes while writing this (which is, again, to point out how very long a time it takes me to write one of these things; you’d think that, with all the effort, they’d be a little better), and even though I haven’t enjoyed them, per se, I do plan to keep watching.

Part of that is to see if the ship can be righted, if the show can return to its Season 1 strengths. I think it can, actually. Because, although the characters are primarily terrible, the real problem is that the show is asking us to like them. Mellie, Fitz’s wife, is an ambitious harpy, standing in the way of Fitz and Olivia’s happiness, who wants to be president herself someday and will bravely weather any adversity to achieve her goal, and she is far and away the most likeable character on the show because we’re not supposed to like her. Unlike the other characters – such as her husband, the president, who smothered a Supreme Court Justice because he found out she’d fixed the election that got him the White House and he was so angry no one believed he could have won honestly, but she only had a few months left to live anyway because of cancer – her flaws are not justified; we’re not supposed to overlook them. We’re not being asked to root for Mellie, to ignore the costs of her victory, in part because she almost never wins, but mostly because she’s not a hero.

Scandal needs to stop thinking any of its characters are white hats, and also stop using the term “white hats”; never has a show been more unwilling to kill its darlings. Bring back the, you know, scandals, that the regulars have to fix, rather than having only plots that revolve around covering up their own shady doings. Additionally, recognize that interpersonal drama can only be interesting for so long with a finite cast of characters, and settle the Fitz and Olivia drama once and for all, be it a break-up, a divorce, an abdication of office, an alien abduction, or whatever; it’s time to get off the pot on that particular point.

Finally, the show needs to replace Harrison. I 100% applaud the decision to cut ties with an actor who has numerous arrests for domestic violence, but the character was the only one who remained untouched by all of the drama that surrounded him. Maybe that would have changed if he’d remained on the show for longer; regardless, a character who enjoys his work, who is unburdened by a traumatic past, who has never killed anyone or taken joy in another’s problems, and is a sharp dresser in every situation is what this show needs. Ironically, Harrison was really the only good guy the show had; well, David Rosen has always been a good guy, I guess, but he’s been a dupe too many times. Harrison was the good guy who always came out on top (except when he finally got killed, that is), and the show needs that. The audience needs someone to root for, and we need to be able to root for someone who wins. Right now, we barely have either.


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