Olivia Is Back! Why We Love "Scandal"
By T.F. Charlton on October 02, 2013
BlogHer Original Post
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.
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