Scandal, binge-watching, and embracing a post-Bartlet White House.
Turns out everyone was hanging out without me… and having a hell of a time doing it. Over the past two weeks, I dove headlong into Shonda Rhimes’ insane world of Scandal in anticipation of it’s 4th season premiere this Thursday. For the longest time, friends, co-workers, and reviewers had all insisted that Scandal was the most fun they were having on TV — and for whatever reason, whatever preconception, whatever excuse I had, it just never made it onto my priority list.
Don’t make the same mistake I did.
I was inspired by a great blast on Vulture (NYMagazine’s online entertainment platform) to catch up in time for the premiere, which provided a blow-by-blow of which episodes were essential viewing in the serialized arc of the series. The plan dictated I watch 23 episodes (out of a potential 48) in 2 weeks — not a personal record (which still belongs to the time I devoured all 4 seasons of The OC during a nasty bout of tonsillitis in 4th year — Seth Cohen is my spirit animal), but nevertheless, still an impressive feat(?).
I grew up on The West Wing — that perfect, high-minded, liberal fantasy of a White House stocked with bravura performances, substantive debates of the issues, and beautifully dovetailing scripts — so, naturally, I was protective and a little skeptical about another cast of characters invading what I still clung to as the Bartlet White House. I forever wanted the west wing occupied by high-minded rhetoric and lofty idealism, but thankfully, Scandal doesn’t even attempt to take up Bartlet’s daunting mantle. Instead, it occupies such a vastly different space that they really aren’t comparable at all. The Bartlet idealism that spawned Obama’s audacity to hope, has since been levelled by the grinding reality of politicking self-interest. DC is a black hole where good intentions go to die, serving as the ultimate signifier of Americans’ inability to look beyond self and towards a more perfect union. Scandal seizes upon this grim reality and responds by throwing the important issues under the bus for the sake of breakneck plotting (they burn through plot at a rate unheard of in network or cable television — set-ups that the trained TV watcher expects to be paid off in the finale are exploded before the 2nd act), morally grey characters (to call them such would be a compliment — with everyone so mired in deceit and sin, you can only cling to whomever you enjoy the most and hope they make it out alive), and salacious twists (the amount of WTF moments is off the charts). And as further indication of Scandal‘s despondent world, President Fitzgerald Grant is the President America deserves (a reflection of the people: well-intentioned, but philandering, naive, and easily manipulated), but not the President America needs right now (yup, still Bartlet).
All of this isn’t to say I’m not a fan — for in prioritizing plotting, twists, and moral ambiguity, Scandal thrillingly reaches beyond it’s procedural set up of Washington DC fixer, Olivia Pope (the sublime Kerry Washington), and her motley crew of foot soldiers keeping scandals out of the 24/7 spin cycle. As the series progresses its increasingly clear that everything is connected, everyone has an earth-shattering secret, and the series quickly descends into a glorious chaos of serialized murder, mayhem, and what the fuckery.
The world is coloured by a diverse, well-rounded cast of characters — among whom there are a few particular stand-outs. The President’s monstrously self-interested and wonderfully gay chief of staff, Cyrus (Jeff Perry), the First Lady with an iron will and a broken heart, Mellie (Bellamy Young), and my favourite, Olivia’s spymaster father, Eli (Emmy-winner Joe Morton), who holds more secrets than anyone and delivers nearly every line as an eruption of verbose, devastatingly over-the-top melodrama. But the beating heart of the series is Olivia — her fierce loyalty to her team and her destructive, mutual obsession with Fitz (ie. Mr. President) fuelling the engine of the plot.
In an age when even the nation’s leaders are petty, self-absorbed, and scandalized, when noone is good and seemingly everyone is in it for themselves, Rhimes explicitly calls back to America’s formative narrative myth of the Western — codifying Olivia and her team as the riders in the white hats, galloping to the rescue — to help bring order to the chaos. The halls of power in Washington DC today are as lawless and broken as the Wild West ever was. Scandal endeavours to shine a light on the ugly heart of the nation and society’s insatiable thirst to devour anyone who’s ready to fall off the pedestal of fame. In world where everyone is bad and noone is worth saving, everyone is worth saving. It may be a losing battle, but as one character declares, the point of it all is to summon the courage to pick oneself up out of the muck, put on the white hat, and drag those who have fallen into the light, to exercise some measure of cathartic justice upon those who are convinced they are above the law. Heavy stuff, but dealt with in such insanely thrilling, romantic, and melodramatic ways that Scandal is irresistible.
As Olivia Pope would say, the important thing is to get on top of it and control the message. And my message is: don’t put it off any longer. Don your white hat, get a ticket to the President’s Ball, and strap yourself in for a wild ride. Catch up, catch your breath, and only then can you rest easy and know that it’s handled.