Scandal, Shonda Rhimes' hit political thriller, is terrific trash. I don’t say that as a backhanded compliment, either. I have every reason to believe that it’s designed to be instantly disposable. Amped up and flashy to the point of garishness, it’s an expertly made show that cannot withstand a single moment of serious consideration. I have to believe that this is not an accident. Thus, it is terrific trash.
Since the show returns to ABC for its third season on October 3, now seems like an excellent time to catch on the ways that—for good and for ill—Scandal sets itself apart.
**SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to assume that we’re all up to date on the latest shit. If you’re not ready to start Season 3, catch up and come back here. The internet isn’t going anywhere.***
1. Movement. The continuing story of DC fixer Olivia Pope is a constant race to the television break. Each episode is constructed perfectly to establish the new short-term problem of each episode (missing woman, politico caught in a gay sex scandal), complicate several long term problems (Quinn’s legal troubles, Huck’s torture addiction), and add fuel to the fire of the overarching scandal of the title (Olivia’s affair with President Grant and the theft of the election). Each episode starts out at sixty mph and keeps the pedal to the floor.
2. Kerry Washington. Gorgeous, poised, fully possessed—Washington is as charismatic an actor as we have working on television today. The show wouldn’t keep us nailed down throughout the chaos without her anchoring everything as Olivia Pope. It doesn’t hurt that she has on a new killer outfit in every scene.
3. Jeff Perry. As Olivia’s mentor/friend/nemesis Cyrus Beene, Jeff Perry gives the show its main tether to sober-eyed reality. He’s West Wing’s Chief of Staff Leo McGarry become Machiavelli. He’s also a step forward in representation: a gay villain who’s neither whitewashed into harmlessness nor broadly caricatured into stereotype. He’s simply the most fascinating character on the show—someone you admire and detest at the same time.
4. Bellamy Young. One brilliant aspect of the show is the way three main characters circle the seat of power that is the Presidency. If Tony Goldwyn’s President Grant is feckless and indecisive, it’s only because he’s being played by three master manipulators—Olivia Pope, Cyrus Beene, and the First Lady Melanie Grant. Played beautifully by Bellamy Young, she may be the smartest of the three.
5. Diversity. Even in 2013, the cast lists of many television shows look as diverse as a cookie pan. Scandal, however, doesn’t just have a multi-racial cast, it presents its diverse world without commentary. It’s just a part of the show.
1. People. Speak. Very. Slowly. And. Deliberately. To. Make. A. Point.They. Do. This. A. Lot. For. Effect.
2. Torture. The best argument to be made against Scandal—that the show is just plain trash-trash—is the way it fetishizes torture, using human suffering for cheap thrills and kneejerk drama. All this was bad enough when it was just Huck and his addiction, but Quinn’s sudden conversion into being someone who likes to drill kneecaps has a real stink to it.
3. The Powers of Rhetoric. Everything that Scandal does well, it does to excess. Case in point: Olivia’s ability to change anyone’s mind, most deeply held beliefs, or life’s ambition with the power of one passionately delivered speech. Often this speech. Is. Spoken. Very. Slowly. For. Effect.
4. The Pictures. What’s with the pictures on the wall? Olivia and her team of super-lawyer-gladiators sure do spend a lot of time—and seem to derive outsized amounts of information—from looking at photos of people taped to their walls.
5. Really? This is the kind of show where you check your disbelief at the door. It’s fun to do that. But it’s starting to become impossible to ignore that the Grant administration is a public debacle that makes Watergate look like the White House Easter Egg Roll. Rhimes and her team keep the party rocking, but Season 3 might be some kind of credulity endurance test.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.