I only recently caught up on ABC's Scandal, the drama following D.C. crisis management guru Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), from Grey's Anatomy showrunner Shonda Rhimes. I watched every episode in a few marathons over the holidays as I made and wrapped Christmas presents, and it's been off the air for the past eleven weeks, so I've never followed the series on a weekly basis. Scandal returns to ABC this Thursday, and I honestly can't wait.
Here's the thing about Scandal: if it were on HBO, or even Showtime, it would be the best show ever. But it isn't. It's on ABC. And that entails everything a network primetime drama always entails: dumbing down of plot points, insane stakes escalation, suit interference in an attempt to keep everyone happy.
And yet there's something about this show I find so deeply compelling. Part of that is simply Kerry Washington's performance as the damaged but ever stalwart Pope. Her character is based on George H. W. Bush's press aide Judy Smith, and she's a fascinating character. She lives alone in a gorgeous home and seems to subsist solely on a diet of microwave popcorn and red wine, and she fixes everyone else's problems while causing hundreds more in her own labyrinthine life. She's surrounded by a group of sometimes worshipful, sometimes traitorous associates who all have their own crises to fix, and of course she's in love with the President of the United States (Tony Goldwyn), even though that's the worst possible idea.
Part of my attraction to Scandal is also one of the things that make it so silly: that escalation. It almost feels like a supernatural universe, one in which incredibly high-profile White House politicians can murder their spouses IN THE WHITE HOUSE and no one's the wiser. A universe where both of Olivia's parents are supervillains - the shadowy head of a deeply embedded covert ops organization and a literal terrorist - and American citizens are regularly tortured in the middle of the day in our nation's capital. Scandal feels more like magical realism than a political thriller, and since I enjoy both magical realism and political intrigue as literary concepts, it's no surprise that I find the possibly accidental intersection of the two genres so engrossing.
Because Olivia Pope has all of the criteria we associate with superheroes, doesn't she? A tragic backstory: the untimely death of her mother (Khandi Alexander) and a loveless rearing by her nefarious father (the great Joe Morton). A secret identity: the mistress of the President. A ubiquitous costume: her all-white suits. A nemesis: that very same father, who seems to have limitless power when it comes to the people in Olivia's life. She has sidekicks and a lair and weekly adventures that should always end with her death but instead conclude with her saving the day by the skin of her teeth.
So the lack of realism in Scandal is the very thing that makes it so intriguing. We're witnessing a universe where anything can happen, because the stakes are boundless. And Scandal has a very clever secret: it's a partisan series that fosters to a bipartisan audience. President Fitzgerald Grant's administration is Republican, and as I first started watching the show I found myself asking, "Am I supposed to be rooting for these guys? Am I supposed to hope that they don't get caught tampering with votes and ushering in a president who might very well bring down the entire nation with his incompetence?" I mean, Judy Smith is a fascinating woman, but let's not forget that she worked for George Herbert Walker Bush. Do I really want to be on this team?
The answer, obviously, is no. And that's okay - because the answer is supposed to be no. Rhimes has Republicans watching her show because it's about a Republican administration, and yet it's the most inept and corrupt administration possible. These guys are idiots. It's fun to watch them self-destruct.
Scandal doesn't only reach across party lines. Of the nine characters who make up the starring cast, four are women, two are black, one's Latino, one's Jewish and one's gay. The supporting cast is even more diverse. And the fact remains: this is a show starring an African-American woman in a position of power and prestige. Obviously that shouldn't be a big deal, but it is. One of the main characters (Jeff Perry's magnificent Cyrus) is one of the least stereotypical representations of a gay man I've ever seen onscreen. That also shouldn't be a big deal, but it is.
And the female characters on this show are something else. They're each strong and conflicted and weird and intelligent and slightly evil. The audience would hate Bellamy Young's Mellie - the cold-hearted wife of our protagonist's lover - on any other series. Instead, Mellie is one of the most deliciously watchable characters on the show. She's an asshole, she's brilliant, she's sympathetic, she's fierce. I love her. Quinn (Katie Lowes), Abby (Darby Stanchfield), Sally Langston (Kate Burton), Verna (Debra Mooney), Lauren (Sharmila Devar) - all of these women are terrifically complex, interesting characters.
And even if none of the above had swayed me, I'd be sold by the simple fact that Scandal is the series that finally turned me from Team Ben to Team Noel. Scott Foley's Jake Ballard is a dreamboat.
So am I alone here? I doubt this is strictly the coolest series to admit I love, but I'm admitting it anyway. Scandal's back on ABC this Thursday, and you can bet I'll be watching it.