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Scandal: Shonda Rhimes goes political

Ever since The West Wing stopped airing, there has been a notable and gaping hole in the television schedule for a smart, snappy political drama that takes viewers into the corridors of power in Washington and spits them back out again at the end of the hour. The Shonda Rhimes Network, also known as ABC, decided to go big or go home with Scandal, a midseason pickup for 2012 that revolves around Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), ‘the most powerful woman you’ve never heard of.’

Pope is a fixer in Washington who can handle any problem that comes up—for a price. Based on consultant Judy Smith, who worked as a press aide to George H. W. Bush, Pope is an expert in crisis management with the ability to multitask, delegate at the speed of light, and handle anything the press corps, and the public, can throw at her clients. Her swanky offices house an assortment of misfits with variably shady pasts who are all united by one thing: Their tireless admiration of Pope and commitment to the business. They’ll stop at nothing to support the goal of Pope and Associates, which is to make sure the secrets of the wealthy and powerful stay secret, even as they hide a few of their own.

What’s fun about Scandal is the setting on the outside of the White House looking in, although Pope enjoys a close personal relationship with the President. Viewers become insiders, but not quite, and there’s a certain tension created as they see politics at its worst, when it’s time to call in the big guns and stage an intervention. Unlike The West Wing, which focused on the daily activities of staff members at work, Scandal revolves around the dangerous pitfalls that lie in the potential career of any politician, power broker, or high-profile executive, the things that can bring down a life’s work in a single instant.

And, in true Rhimes tradition, a lot of those pitfalls are totally over the top. A certain suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy the show, which verges on the ridiculous at times and sets up scenarios that are highly implausible. We are supposed to believe, for example, that Pope is the kind of person who would help a woman escape from an abusive marriage with one breath and order an employee to torture someone with another.

Rhimes doesn’t shy away from murky ethical territory on her other shows, and it’s in full flower on Scandal, where Pope handles anything for the right price, including some very sordid cases. She makes it clear that she wants to run a nonjudgmental office, whether they’re assisting someone accused of rape, a DC madam, or a Latin American dictator. Unfortunately, Rhimes attempts to balance out this ruthless attitude with plot twists that allow the characters to take the moral high ground in the end, rather than allowing the story to unfold naturally (and more true to life).

Intriguingly, the Grant administration is Republican, though moderate rather than right-wing—the President clashes with his Vice-President, Sally Langston (Kate Burton) over their divergent politics—and Pope is a former Grant employee. For those who thought Rhimes might explore a more nuanced depiction of Republicans, exploring the diversity and complexity of the party, never fear: Grant (Tony Goldwyn) is utterly morally bankrupt and repulsive, and his Chief of Staff, Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry) is equally horrific.

One of the aspects of politics highlighted by Scandal is the role of gatekeepers, and the way in which public officials can become trapped in rigid roles. Pope and Grant routinely miscommunicate because their messages are filtered through other people; Cyrus in particular at least claims to have the best interests of Grant at heart, and routinely throws Pope under the bus to get what he wants. In the latest episode, Grant chafed at the fact that he was effectively a prisoner in the White House; ‘I’m the leader of the free world…and I can’t leave my own house,’ struggling with the fact that being President doesn’t mean you have free access to everything you want, or need.

Scandal has just two more episodes this season, and the last is likely to be explosive, given Rhimes’ penchant for leaving readers hanging at the end of the season as well as tantalising the network to encourage it to pick up another season. I for one would like to see the show renewed, because there’s a tremendous amount of potential here, and it’s exciting to see Rhimes taking things in a slightly new direction from her previous work.

While Scandal definitely has some soapy aspects, it’s not as sudsy as offerings like Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice and has the possibility of being a much more mature, emotionally complex, and savvy show. I’m engaged with and interested by the characters, particularly Olivia Pope, who is one of the few Black female leads on television at the moment. Her relationship with David Rosen (Joshua Malina) is particularly interesting to watch, as the characters spar brilliantly and delightfully in the course of doing their work, sometimes on opposite sides of the law. Good plot and character development could take the show to an exciting level, if Rhimes resists the temptation to rely on cheap tricks and twists to get what she wants. Her showing has been a bit hit and miss so far in that department, but there’s a chance it could tighten up next season.

Progressive audiences have been thirsting for a new West Wing and Scandal won’t get there, but it may be fun along the way. For that alone, I’m waiting eagerly for renewal announcements. Given that we’re in an election year, Scandal is particularly well-positioned for some sharp political commentary in the fall if Rhimes is willing to go there; and I bet she is.

She’s up against some competition, though, with Veep, Political Animals, and 1600 Penn all vying for a position as political top dog. Too much political commentary for one year? We’ll find out in September…