Scandal: One of the craziest -- and best -- shows on TV
I’ll get right to the point, because if the show I’m about to recommend has one rule, it’s this: Don’t waste time. You should be watching Scandal, the weird, addictive hypersoap that is currently flying in the face of everything we officially revere about the neo–golden age of TV drama. Scandal is, one might argue, ludicrous and indefensible trash, but if so, it’s trash with a capital T, a bedazzled R, an anarchy-symbol A, a neon S, and an H that stands for “Holy s—, I can’t believe they did that!” It is also, against all odds, the most original drama on network TV right now.
I say “right now” because Scandal could fly over a cliff next week; it is always that close to chaos. If you haven’t been watching, let me nutshell it for you: Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington at a pitch that’s just one glossy tantrum away from complete hysteria, is a Washington, D.C., crisis manager who is, in the show’s fevered imagination, the most ultracompetent, impatient, and hard-charging African-American woman in the known universe. When we first met Olivia last April, she was pulling various fat cats out of the fire while rebuffing her ex-lover, the white married Republican president—who, it turns out, our heroine/villainess helped get elected by engineering voter fraud, a crime that has locked her in a five-way unholy cabal with, among other people, the Machiavellian First Lady and a cancer-stricken female Supreme Court justice, and are you still with me because I have not even told you half of what happens?! It gets better, and crazier, every week. Scandal’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, is also African-American, female, important, and put-upon, and if this is her narcissistic fantasy, that’s okay by me: Television is filled with narcissistic fantasies, and hers, an estrogenic fun-house ride through The West Wing, “Trapped in the Closet,” The Manchurian Candidate, vintage Melrose Place, and a “Most Powerful Women” back issue of Essence magazine, looks and sounds like nobody else’s. (As for Scandal’s racial politics, they’re jittery and mostly subsurface, but suffice it to say, you could write a dissertation.)
This has not been a distinguished period for network dramas. Most serialized shows seem to have forgotten a basic rule, which is that every episode must make the viewing of next week’s episode absolutely essential. Revolution started with a bang-up postapocalyptic premise, but assumed its audience would patiently mosey along until a Lost-like big reveal sometime around 2018. Vegas seems to half-promise an epic story of good and evil in the 1960s West, but also thinks viewers will panic and bolt unless a crime is solved every week. The music soap Nashville is unfortunately too high-minded to have fun with its nasty aging-country-diva-versus-whorish-Taylor-Swift premise and would rather be a serious drama in which Mrs. Friday Night Lights and the girl from Heroes have long talks with everyone about their feelings. It’s all nuance and no momentum (and its B plot, about a bland singer-songwriter in a love triangle, is so detached from the action that it feels like a dull ’90s Canadian version of Nashville). And Revenge has devolved into a convoluted, inert Hamptons version of Saturday Night Live’s “The Californians” in which a group of glowering dim bulbs endlessly sulk and consider their indecipherable next moves while Emily VanCamp narrows her eyes, probably plotting to kill the writers, who make her begin each episode by quoting Sun Tzu or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Scandal never stalls: It is dementedly bent on jumping ahead of your attempts to jump ahead of it. A few weeks ago I was watching and thought, in a year or so they’re probably going to bust out a presidential-assassination plotline. They did it right after the next commercial. Okay, I thought, now the rest of the season will be devoted to unraveling the conspiracy behind it. It happened just a few episodes later. To say that Scandal requires you to suspend disbelief misses the point: If you don’t buy that the same-sex partner of the president’s Republican chief of staff (what?) is also a White House correspondent (WHAT?), not to mention the only journalist in America to suspect the election-rigging conspiracy (WHAT?!), then, you know, yay for you and your good taste. This show will not be going to the Emmys next year. But most network television is safe, and Scandal is not. It’s unhinged; it’s insane. And it couldn’t be more welcome.