“I’m a gladiator in a suit” is a sucky line.
When I first heard it, I thought: “I can’t possibly watch this show. This is like the worst episodes of Grey’s Anatomy combined [yes, another guilty pleasure - sadly, it has lost a lot of the "dark and twisty" appeal it once had...], where some of the pretentious, pseudo-quirky and yet, extremely tacky punch lines make your teeth hurt…” (yes, I am mean like that). However, I am now officially obsessed (…obsessed!) with Shonda Rhimes’ ABC show “Scandal”.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, “Scandal” is a drama revolving around the peculiar law firm of Olivia Pope in Washington, D.C. Pope and her associates are no “ordinary” lawyers, however, because they have specialized in “fixing things”. They “fix” the problems of their clients, which turns out to be a bit of a mixture of very ordinary legal defense tactics, public relations and crisis management, and simply political lobbying work.
Pope, a former student of Cyrus, the present chief of staff of the U.S. president Fitz Grant, had successfully worked on the latter’s campaign to get him elected, and had a job in the White House, before, presumably, her affair with Grant which developed on the campaign trail, made her quit. Obviously, lots of romantic and dramatic entanglements ensue, Shonda Rhimes interweaves flashbacks and uncertainties about people’s characters in this first season of seven episodes, and it’s a fast paced show you have to pay attention to. Also, Rhimes’ “thing” seems to be to have people talk really fast – something I quite enjoy, but which (as it did and does in Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, too…) can still be a bit of a drag, no matter how fast-paced, and sometimes amounts to rather tacky monologues that lack credibility and honesty, in my view.
So, why do I still like “Scandal”?
Yes, first and foremost, because of the obvious: Kerry Washington. The mere fact that you can count the number of Black female TV show leads on prime time on one hand within the past decades, makes this hugely important to me [...that, IMO, Washington is awesome, smart, funny, and ridiculously good-looking doesn't hurt, either].
Shonda Rhimes is famous for her “colorblind” casting approach: in contrast to other TV series (and movies and every other form of mainstream entertainment, really), the race [sic] her characters will have on the show is not pre-determined. Incidentally, that results in the wonderful fact that with Rhimes, Black actors or any actors of color, really, are not cast as the “constant sidekick”, like a friend of mine phrased it, or as the typical “ethnic character” with “ethnic” quirks and problems (Angry Black Woman, anyone? Look at the smash hit “True Blood”, for example, especially the first two seasons, and you’ll see what I mean… UGH.), but as actual people with the same complexity as every other character.
Second: the number of actors of color in Rhimes’ shows is, subsequently, significantly higher than in every other prime time shows. Whereas german theater companies, for example, still think it is a valid excuse to state that there merely weren’t enough non-white people to choose from, so of course the cast is completely white, Rhimes time and again proves the obvious: if you don’t presume whiteness as default of an alleged “normality” or universality, than ignoring people of color makes no sense anymore, and things get a lot more pleasant and easier. Grey’s Anatomy would be a good example for this: while the protagonist, Meredith Grey, is a white woman, half of the cast is not – her best friend, Christina, is Asian-American, the chief of surgery, Webber, is African-American, her (former) resident in charge, Bailey, is African-American, etc. And the best thing about it? Their skin color is not the epicenter of their character – it is just one part of their identity, whereas their actual human quirks are of utmost importance to the story. Both Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, however, have not shied away from demonstrating their character’s experiences with racism, for example, so Rhimes is far from a pseudo-”colorblindness” ideology, thankfully. I’ll be curious to know how this might play out on “Scandal” in the future.
Third: Shonda Rhimes creates strong female leads. Olivia Pope is a peculiar character that could have slipped into “contrived” and “tacky” very quickly, which, I think, has so far been avoided thanks to Washington’s acting skills. Pope is extremely good at her (yet again: very peculiar) job, smart, passionate, courageous, aggressive, authoritative, only needing “one minute” to compose herself after whatever drama has happened, and, still, simultaneously sensitive, compassionate and living with that massive weak spot that is a big crush on a married U.S. President. Pope is not flawless. Despite the constant referral to “her gut” as the best judge and jury, she misjudges situations, she makes the wrong call at times and has to face up to the consequences (be it Amanda Tanner or her affair) to a certain extent. Nothing has been devastating so far, and Rhimes is most certainly not going to destroy viewers’ sympathy for her lead, but at least there are glimpses of Pope struggling with herself and the circumstances.
Two things are a bit of turn-off for me, though…
First: the particular presentation of crisis management, meaning: literally “cleaning up” after the messes some other people made, seems to be a bit of an unfortunate metaphor for a female professional. Pope is not directly in charge of decision-making in the political process, she is the one who is called in when things go wrong and has to tidy up the mess of the big boys. So no matter how strong and powerful she might be in certain circles and contexts, this set-up makes her, essentially, an extremely well-paid housekeeper – I would call that a problematically gendered implication. Obviously, she has still a privileged position in many regards – I don’t think what Pope does is necessarily negatively gendered, I think how it is framed and verbally presented here at times is. One could also frame it as: Olivia Pope is the only one who actually knows what the hell she’s doing.
Second, Pope might struggle with herself and the circumstances and, granted, it is early in the season(s) of this show, but the one thing is: she always comes out on top. She is still “the good guy”. No matter how crappy a decision was (her’s or someone else’s), she can fix it and she will. Her affair with the President is morally qualified by the fact that the first lady is set up as an ambitious, lying, cold-hearted woman who keeps her husband in a dead marriage due to her love of power. This, of course, is not innovative or subversive in the slightest, and it is an old and boring trick to make one woman look even more amazing by making another one look like a monster. I really hope Rhimes will give both characters more depth than this…
The problem is: Pope leads her own law firm of five other lawyers, has worked in the White House, plays cat and mouse with the prosecutor and almost always gets her way (one way or the other), knows all the dirty D.C. tricks that rule the game of politics – and accomplishes all of that while wearing heels for 16 hours a day and looking extremely airbrushed. You see where this could go very wrong? It could be very shallow, very annoying, very sad – and at times, I have been on the fence about this show… Yet, Rhimes and her other writers are skillful enough to insert some reality and honesty into each episode, and despite Pope’s ridiculous over the top amazingness, I think there is something intriguing about a TV series that requires powerful old white men to call in a young African-American woman for help, and to have a character like Pope be the knight for once. It also seems typical to see all the logical flaws in a female, over-the -top-amazing lead, whereas male McGyver figures in other prime time shows are commonplace and few people question their mad skills; to turn this fairytale around seems quite refreshing to me. I am quite curious where Rhimes will go with it next season.
Finally: Rhimes is “subtly explicit” about her dislike of radical Republicans (as repeatedly denounced by various characters on “Scandal”, even the more moderate Republican president Grant who cannot stand his female, Tea Party-icon vice president) and discrimination against marginalized people in her TV shows. A majority of her characters – and the occasional pun – seem to reflect the fact that she does not promote an anti-LGBTQ, anti-woman or anti-choice platform. Cyrus, President Grant’s chief of staff, is a married gay man whose husband wants to adopt a baby. Abby, one of Pope’s associates, could count on Pope’s help in getting out of a physically abusive marriage, and tells the story how Pope even physically attacked Abby’s ex-husband after he broke Abby’s ribs and jaw one night. In all three of Rhimes’ recent series, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal, abortion has popped up, and is most often talked about as “the legal right to choose,” never as the abomination some radical right-wingers make it out to be. Consent has been another topic that Rhimes repeatedly takes up in her shows.
So, all in all: being able to root for a self-proclaimed gladiator (of color) in a suit (…no matter how much I hate that line…), having a woman of color save the day and be every person’s secret weapon for (obviously: a very mainstream idea of) success, and finally having a Black female lead who is not simply a Black character, but an actual person with ambiguities and complexities and every other sign of complete humanity is reason enough for me right now to keep watching. Let’s hope the fast pace and nice shoes and quirky lines and alarming amount of American exceptionalism talk in each episode will be accompanied by some rawness next season.