Olivia Is Back! Why We Love "Scandal"
Shonda Rhimes’s Scandal is back, which means you might find your Twitter timeline taken over this Thursday night by cryptic tweets about gladiators, white hats, and improbable political conspiracies. Avid fans, myself included, are ready and eager to resume the breathless real time commentary and analysis that have made Scandal the “Most Tweeted Show on television.”
Image: ABC Medianet
Those outside the fandom - and perhaps more than a few envious showrunners - might wonder what it is about Scandal that draws in such an engaged audience. The formula is deceptively simple: fast-paced drama that doesn’t string viewers along, multidimensional characters, and a creative team that’s actively engaged with their audience on and off social media all make Scandal Must See - and Must Tweet - TV.
The Washington, D.C., of Rhimes’s imagination bristles with backstabbers, spies, clandestine lovers, and more-duplicitous-than-usual politicians. In a year of Scandal time, we’ve seen an attempt on President Fitzgerald (“Fitz”) Grant’s life, a terminally ill Supreme Court Justice revealed as the orchestrator -- and said justice murdered in cold blood by said president when she grows a deathbed conscience and wants to expose her role in rigging Fitz’s election. And of course there’s the tortured, on-and-off affair between the fierce, flawed Olivia Pope and the very married Fitz.
Image: ABC Medianet
It’s such melodrama that reels Scandal fan Kjerstin Johnson in: “I know I’ll see people doing unthinkable things,” she says, “and I’ll love every minute of it.” For Chris MacDen, Scandal is “riveting,” reminiscent of the '80s heyday of primetime soaps. Indeed, Rhimes explicitly taps into nostalgia for hugely popular shows like Dallas and Dynasty. Scandal’s “Who Shot Fitz?” echoes the iconic “Who Shot J.R.?” ad campaign for Dallas.
Rhimes brings a thoughtfulness to the genre that elevates what could easily be indulgent sensationalism. Revelations are carefully doled out, at times in tantalizing bits, at others in epic, game-changing moments – a hallmark of Rhimes’s shows – that completely disrupt what we think we know about a character or a plotline. We’re kept on the edge of our seats with constantly ratcheting suspense that’s both delicious and unbearable. (The scene in which Fitz murders Verna is a master workshop in drawing out tension just to its breaking point - we know Fitz is poised to do something desperate and irreversible, but we can’t quite imagine it until it actually happens.) All of this makes for what fan Patrick calls “a show of passions on an operatic level.”
The larger-than-life plots are balanced by a complex moral universe that belies the simplistic “white hats vs. black hats” framing with which the show began. Scandal is packed with compelling, nuanced characters who are never what they initially seem. Olivia, our “white hat” par excellence, turns out to be at the very center of the conspiracy to steal an election, and the mystery of who Quinn is and why she was kidnapped and given a new identity.
Tekla, another Scandal watcher, praises Rhimes for “show[ing] women as people” through a range of meaty roles: “righteous [but] conflicted” Olivia, naive Quinn, “calculating yet human” Mellie, and others. This is a Shonda Rhimes hallmark, but remarkable, even unprecedented, given Kerry Washington’s starring role. Womanist critic Trudy Hamilton (founder of the blog Gradient Lair) notes that Olivia is a representation of a Black woman “rarely seen on screen:” she’s neither a “controlling…stereotype” nor a “reactionary, one-dimensional ‘positive’ character. She’s…painfully and beautifully [human].” She’s a Black woman who is simultaneously loved, respected, and far from saintly. The heroic figure we root for and empathize with is not, for example, the idealistic prosecutor David Rosen, who it could be argued serves as the conscience of the cast, but the morally ambiguous Olivia Pope.
Image: ABC Medianet
Rhimes doesn’t get nearly enough credit for how subversive Scandal is in this respect - and in its portrayal of Fitz as a president whose primary usefulness is his political pedigree. His administration is kept afloat by people who are far more competent to campaign and govern than he: Olivia, his wife Mellie, and Cyrus, his gay Chief of Staff. As the realities of racism, misogyny, and homophobia make them less politically “viable,” securing power for Fitz is the closest this trio can come to wielding that power themselves. Mellie and Cyrus in particular settle for preserving Fitz’s presidency at all costs, even if it means murder, treason, or fraud.
One of my favorite Scandal moments is Cyrus’s bitterly honest speech about how he’s had to settle for being a kingmaker instead of being president himself - a raw but nuanced moment that exposes his arrogance, ruthlessness, and real anguish over what homophobia has cost him in one riveting swoop. By comparison, Fitz is oblivious to his many privileges, living in a fantasy world where he’s won the presidency on meritocratic grounds. Verna’s revelation that the election was rigged smashes this illusion. Losing it, and the threat of losing his power, is so unbearable to Fitz that he chooses murder over facing the truth. He refuses to confront the reality that he’s hopeless without the team of players who repeatedly come to his rescue.
This is at once a thorough subversion of white male savior tropes and a reflection of how things often work in the real world: Olivia, Mellie, and Cyrus operate behind the scenes, without credit, while Fitz reaps the benefits. Rhimes has joked that Tony Goldwyn’s “Fitz” plays the role of “pretty girl that all the men are trying to save” on most shows, “except he happens to also be the leader of the free world.”
Image: ABC Medianet
This tangled, codependent political relationship is just one of many examples of what makes Scandal - to quote Trudy Hamilton - not only “entertaining [and] aesthetically compelling, [but…sociopolitically challenging.” Scandal is ideal for what Anne Helen Petersen calls “new modes” – like social media – “of engaging with televisual texts.” The combination of complex characters that beg for analysis, engrossing melodrama, a passionate, funny, and incisive fanbase, and highly invested and engaged creative team, make for one of the most satisfying TV live-tweeting experiences out there. For me, half the fun of watching Scandal is experiencing it with Twitter - we yell at the TV together, gasp at the same moments, snark, and bond over the characters we love, or love to hate. (In case it’s hard to tell, I’m a card carrying member of the “We Hate Fitz” club.)
Chris Macdonald-Dennis suggests there’s some old school magic at work: “communal tweeting of Scandal…brings us together in ways that the nature of media no longer allows: we ALL watch it.” For an hour (a little more) every Thursday night, we gather around our TVs and the virtual watercooler that is Twitter, to collectively annotate the visual text of Scandal in real time. In doing so we make the show ours; perhaps we feel we are gladiators on some level, like we have a stake in the show. Shonda Rimes has always done a good job of cultivating this sense of audience investment and a responsiveness to her viewers on her other shows. On Scandal, it’s taken to a whole new level, with the entire cast joining countless fans online to live-tweet the show.
Image: ABC Medianet
The third season of Scandal promises to be as full of shocking revelations and intrigues as ever. We learned at the end of last season that the mysterious operative behind attempts on Olivia’s life was her own father - moments after a swarm of journalists descended on Olivia’s home after being tipped off (another mystery: by whom?) about her affair with the President. We still have Huck’s search for his family, Quinn’s transformation from neophyte spy into a gleeful torturer, Jake’s detainment and reprogramming by the CIA, and the fallout from Olivia’s knowledge that Fitz is a murderer to explore. Most importantly, at least according to the inquiring fans in my Twitter circles, we’re still waiting to see if Harrison will ever get a backstory, or at least mollify us by taking his shirt off now and then. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
To get some awesome, hilarious commentary on Scandal in your timeline, get into these timelines:
@unfoRETTAble (aka Retta, aka Donna from Parks and Recreation, and one of the best people on Twitter to follow for fan commentary on many shows in addition to Scandal. Note: she tweets episodes late!)
T.F. Chalrton is a freelance writer, editor, and founder of Are Women Human?