Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal on ABC is off to a roaring start with its second season, picking up where the first left off with the unmasking of Quinn’s true identity and subsequent legal troubles. The series seems determined to up the stakes with each episode, though, as illustrated with last week’s ‘Hunting Season,’ which played on a number of media themes and political concerns in an explosive episode about the government spying on its own citizens in a plot that reaches far into the upper echelons of government.
Scandal occupies an unusual place on US television since it has a Black woman in the leading role, and not just a Black lead, but one in a position of political and social power. Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope is a force to be reckoned with, a woman who holds secrets that could cause blowback at the highest levels of governments and isn’t afraid to resort to highly creative and sometimes quite illegal means to get what she needs for herself and her clients.
Rhimes has crafted a complex and fascinating character in Olivia Pope, one who stretches outside the corners Black women are often forced to inhabit in media. She is strong, powerful, cool, and collected, but also flawed, with struggles related to her own past as well as her present. Tangled in an emotional affair with the President, she’s fighting to extricate herself and running afoul of the petulant temper of a white man who’s accustomed to getting what—and who—he wants. She is perhaps one of the most well-crafted and thoughtfully-produced Rhimes characters, suggesting that Scandal may be a form of tipping point for Rhimes in terms of producing more complex and provocative media.
As a fixer of political problems, she excels at what she does, and since this is, after all, a Rhimes production, she also attempts to be a fixer of personal problems. She’s assembled a staff of people who each struggle with their own issues, and seems to fervently believe that she can help them overcome their pasts. They’re smart and skilled at what they do, sharp and incisive partners in a firm that can take on any challenge, but they’re also dependent on Pope for more than a paycheque. This speaks to Rhimes’ larger desire to create characters who are bigger than their jobs and are compelled by a need to fix not just situations, but people.
The series occupies a strange balance between soap and political commentary that seems to have viewers divided. Some dismiss it as pure soapy froth, writing it off as another entry in Rhimes’ usual ouvre. Others embrace the politics of the show, including not just the commentary on US politics but the meta-discussion on media politics embedded into a show where the lead is Black and defies a lot of stereotypes about Black woman. To fall into the trap of seeing only suds where there is substance as well would be a mistake, but the presence of melodramatic elements in what could be played as a straight political series is also fascinating.
Rhimes may be so accustomed to the primetime soap format that she has trouble breaking away from it, or she may be including those elements for more conscious reasons. She knows what her audiences love and what they respond to, and could feel that including the human drama of politics may be one way to reach them in this radically different setting and format. It’s also an embedded statement and reminder of the humanity behind the Washington facade; the people in positions of power making decisions that affect us have their own complex lives, sordid pasts, and struggles. They may not be quite as outsized and dramatic as they are in Scandal, but they are no less pressing to the people who experience them, particularly those afraid of losing everything if they’re outed.
Scandal contrasts markedly with The West Wing, another series set in the halls of power with its own share of drama. Sorkin’s entry into the political arena was widely heralded as a masterwork, and it’s a show that continues to be watched, referenced, and discussed today. Praised for its dialogue, one-liners, and characterisation, The West Wing is a series that seems to have entered television canon as the definitive entry in terms of Washington dramas. Scandal, on the other hand, is downplayed, although it’s also a well-crafted work with the potential to go far.
The differing reception seems to have a lot to do with the gender and race of the production teams. The West Wing, after all, had its fair share of human drama and veered into melodrama territory on occasion, although it didn’t reach the high froth of Scandal very often. What made it compelling viewing, after all, was not the political process but the people behind it, from a President concealing his multiple sclerosis to a press secretary trying to balance her work and private life and sometimes feeling at odds with the rest of the White House staff.
What worked for The West Wing is viewed with suspicion in Scandal, and this is a curious reflection on the attitudes of viewers. While people consume real-life political scandals avidly and love speculating about the private lives of politicians, they evidently prefer understated drama to soap when it comes to their entertainment. Or is it that they prefer shows with heavily white casts produced by predominantly white teams, presented through the white male gaze? Are they, perhaps, threatened by what Shonda Rhimes and Olivia Pope represent?