Watching a Moving Target: The new ABC drama “Scandal”

11 Apr

Let’s face it, they had me at “scandal,” just like they had me at “revenge.” What other two nouns in the English language could possibly convey so much drama, so many plot twists, and such colossal potential for a one-trick pony serial?  As I’ve gotten hooked (like the rest of you, admit it!) on “Revenge,” I decided to write in “real time” about “Scandal.” “Revenge” is quite fun, but I’m not sure it’s “good television” (whatever that means), and I’m wondering if “Scandal” will be different.  That means that after today, I’ll write about the week’s episode within a day or two of it’s airing.

My idea for this series began at the 2012 conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) recently held in Culture Bean’s hometown, Beantown. Attending a workshop on teaching television studies to undergraduates, I was intrigued by some ideas put forth by Professor Sean O’Sullivan of Ohio State University.   O’Sullivan  teaches serial television, usually looking at a complete season of a series, particularly if the series has ended.  He asks questions around completeness vs. incompleteness; and narrative fragment vs. narrative unity. Areas of inquiry for his students often include how to talk about the incomplete nature of the serial;  and how to talk about authorship if the serial has different directors for each episode (like, for instance, “Treme”).

The first episode of “Scandal” introduces to the characters and sets up the show’s rhythm and subplots. Like creator Shonda Rhime’s other dramas (“Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice”) the show revolves around a work “family” who weekly solve problems. Interlaced are personal and workplace mini-dramas which will tie episodes together. Unlike “CSI,” for instance, there is a seriality to “Scandal” in that there turns out to be a story or two that links episodes, creating the need to watch more to find out how the personal dramas will be resolved. Each episode also has a narrative unity in the weekly problems that cast must tackle.

The show’s premise: Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is a “fixer” whose clients pay her to protect their reputations and keep their public images pristine.  One of her associates emphasizes that while they are all attorneys, they are not a law firm. Rather, they are a crisis management team: Their goal is to ensure that a potential scandal goes away before it appears in a newspaper or a courtroom. Formerly the Director of Communications for the current President of the United States, Pope is deeply connected to the political ins and outs of Washington D.C. To heighten the drama, each of her employees has their own secret, too, with Olivia hiding the biggest, potentially most scandalous secret of them all.

First episode,”Sweet Baby,” original air date, 4/5/2012 (SPOILER ALERT!! I will talk about any and everything.)

A woman rushes across a dark city street to a crowded bar. When she finds the person waiting for her, she tells him she can’t stay because she doesn’t do blind dates. Quickly paced, smartly written dialogue establishes that this is not a date, but a job interview, in fact a job offer.  The camera swirls around Harrison Wright (Columbus Short) and Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes) as quickly as they exchange repartees, moving in closer and closer as the ambient sounds of the bar fade away. When Wright mentions Pope, Perkins literally catches her breath and sits down.  He tells her that he knows she’ll accept the job because “we’re the good guys,” and she’ll be part of a team that “changes lives and slays dragons… because Olivia Pope is as amazing as they say.”

Wright continues, “I’m a gladiator in a suit because that’s what you are when you work for Olivia Pope. Do you want to be a gladiator in a suit? You gotta say it.”

“I want to be a gladiator in a suit.” Perkins replies as the show’s theme swells and we cut to the title sequence.

This cold open told me that something different might be afoot: Instead of introducing the “scandal of the week,” it introduced three key characters, one whose presence is so strong that she doesn’t need to be on-screen.  Wright, whose name rings the truth of his “good guy” persona, is determined, driven, and  honest (most of the time). He talks fast so that Perkins has no time to think, persuading her rapidly.  Perhaps, as Cynthia Fuchs notes, he also talks so fast because regluarly -paced speech simply can’t convey the power that is OLIVIA POPE. Perkins is hungry, pie-eyed, principled, and ready. Pope is, well, as “as amazing as they say.”

The sequence is played as much to introduce Oliva Pope to the viewer as it is to lure Perkins to the job. Similarly, much of the episode concentrates on conveying the characters’ strengths and weaknesses; providing a window into their relationships and desires; and hinting at the secret that each character hides. We learn, for instance, that Pope fixes her employees’ lives as well. She is, as one character puts it, a collector of stray puppies.

The word “gladiator” is repeated several times throughout the episode. Originally, a gladiator was a man trained in ancient Rome to engage in mortal combat with a wild animal or another man for the entertainment of the public.  The word has been absorbed into modern usage, typically referring to someone who staunchly defends a cause, especially a controverisal cause. As the episode unfolds, we see that Wright’s invocation of “gladiator” parses the two meanings: Olivia Pope and associates battle what they truly see as beasts, the kind that ruin reputations and end careers. They defend controversial causes using whatever weapons and tools they have at their disposal.

So what are her associates, gladiators or stray puppies?

As if to underline the brutal, visceral nature of what they do, Pope states several times that “her gut tells her everything she needs to know.”  The people around her believe her and believe in her. They follow her, almost blindly.

The first scandal is a young war hero, “the most decorated hero in recent history,” who has fled the scene of his fiancée’s murder. Sullivan St. James (Wes Brown) is a conservative Republican who makes his living on the speaker circuit denouncing social liberalism.  When Olivia’s team finds evidence to prove his alibi, he refuses to let them admit it.  It turns out that the alibi would reveal that Sully is gay. He has to balance his right-wing reputation against the possibility of life in prison. In the end, Pope and company convince him to proudly own who he is.

The show’s second scandal involves the president, who swears to Pope that he has not had an affair with a young woman ready to publicly accuse him.  Perkins accompanies Pope when she confronts the woman. She witnesses Pope telling the young woman that lying about the affair could have ugly consequences for her, enumerating the private facts that could find their way to the press, like the woman’s 22 sexual partners, a bout of gonorrhea, and her mother’s mental illness. After the woman attempts suicide, she keeps repeating that the president would come because he called her “sweet baby.” Pope knows from this that the president has lied to her about the affair. It turns out that the president and Pope have had an affair and still have deep, complicated feelings for one another. She’s left his employ so that he could fulfill his promise as president and be the man she knows he can be.

In the first episode, then, we learn that Olivia Pope’s “gut” can be right, as in the case of Sully St. James, or it can be clouded by sentiment, as in the case of the president.  Like the Pope, Olivia’s word is law in her firm, though she is flawed and, therefore, real. Pope’s secret could be her undoing, and that of the president. We can look forward to discovering to what lengths she’ll go to hide it.

Quinn Perkins is painted as the moral compass of the show, crying in the bathroom after Pope verbally eviscerates the young woman whose story threatens the president. She desperately wants to be a gladiator in a suit, but she’s still raw, emotional, and innocent. Will she develop into a gladiator in the true sense of the word? Or will she continue to provide a moral backdrop for each episode?

This episode also introduces the show’s presumably liberal politics, and creator Rhimes’s willingness to tackle difficult political issues.

For some reviews of the show, see the links below. Feel free to add links to other reviews.

My verdict is not yet. Stay tuned!

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