When the third season of Scandal premieres tonight, you can bet I’m going to be glued to my set (and Twitter feed) like millions of other Americans. Shonda Rhimes creates mighty good, sexy, nail-biting, oh-my-sweet-God-that-didn’t-just-happen TV. But, good liberal that I am, I can’t help feeling that my love of ABC’s hit show should be attended by some guilt. No, not because what Rhimes calls “fluffier” entertainment is inherently inferior; I don’t feel guilty about it in that sense. But instead because beneath plotlines like that of black political fixer Olivia Pope’s interracial love with the white president and a gay White House Chief of Staff raising a baby with his husband, Scandal is, in essence, the story of an allegedly apolitical (amoral?) woman who routinely abets an illegitimate conservative administration, complete with a radical Evangelical vice-president a heartbeat away from being president. Rhimes and Co. have me rooting for these people.
If you’re not yet among the Scandal-ized, Rhimes’s show centers around Pope (played by Kerry Washington), and her team of “gladiators,” that make up the premier D.C. crisis management firm, Pope & Associates, which handles clients including closeted Navy officers and cuckolded Democratic senators. One of Pope’s biggest fixes was righting the flagging presidential campaign of Fitzgerald Grant (played by the ageless Tony Goldwyn), son of a high-profile Republican family. Scandal watchers have come to learn over two seasons that Grant’s White House win was due less to Pope’s savvy PR campaign than to voting-machine tampering in Defiance, Ohio, the product of collusion between Pope, the White House Chief of Staff, the First Lady, a Supreme Court judge, and a good ole boy oil magnate. Oh, and Pope and the (married) POTUS? They’re in love—deep, steamy, illicit love. In addition to a scandal-of-the-week, the show is propelled by will-they-or-won’t-they speculation around Pope and the president, and the murder and intrigue required to keep what happened in Defiance under wraps.
Olivia Pope, with her fierce brilliance and independence, ability to make tough decisions, loyalty to her team, and divine wardrobe make for an intriguing character, but she is an anti-hero at best. She often claims to be apolitical, on no one’s side in a place where most everyone has an angle. But there is surely a point when being apolitical simply becomes rank immorality. For instance, one of the first times we see Pope in action, she is threatening ruin to a woman who has had an affair with the president. (A woman who, later, she will try to help.) That’s not a heroic move. Nor is subverting the will of the people to put a client-candidate in office. That Pope feels bad about her role in the Defiance subterfuge does not mitigate what happened nor make up for the paternalistic conservative idea, which runs throughout the Scandal narrative, that the Defiance cabal simply knows best and, since American democracy is too big to fail, that the little business of a rigged election is one thing the citizenry needn’t hear about.
I get it. Fiction, at times, requires suspension of belief and the relaxing of personal moral codes. TV watchers have been cheering for bad guys since before J.R. Ewing hatched his first scheme. That swampy cable soap, True Blood, has viewers championing a 1,000-year-old, oft-naked, Viking creature of the night. And, of course, Breaking Bad’s protagonist is a murderous, self-centered teacher turned meth dealer. Thing is, Machiavellian oil barons, vampires, and middle-class meth kingpins aren’t real-life threats for most of us. (If your town is overrun with werepanthers and witches, do tell.).
But the main characters of Scandal are more attractive versions of the very people liberals have been railing against for decades. The 2000 presidential election controversy in Florida, Karl Rove’s manipulations, the George W. Bush administration, the wars and economic ruin that attended it—these were and still are, very real indeed. As is the fact that the United States today sits at day three of a government shutdown, because a group of radical conservatives insist they know better than the electorate.
The career of Judy Smith, the real-life inspiration for Olivia Pope, has also had devastating nonfiction consequences. As Deputy Press Secretary for the first Bush administration, Smith was part of the team that gave us Clarence Thomas and the despicable smearing of Anita Hill. Smith has also worked on cases involving Monica Lewinsky, Michael Vick, Marion Berry, and post-oil spill British Petroleum. She is allegedly now repping fallen butter queen Paula Deen.
The Scandal storyline should hit too close to home. Its characters should remind us too much of the politicians and talking heads we see snarling on cable news every day. After all, America is still suffering the fallout of the illegitimate presidency of a Republican scion, the divisiveness wrought by a take-no-prisoners, manipulative presidential aide and policy advisor, the imposed corrupted values of radical Evangelicals, and repeated conservative attempts to subvert the will of the people and delegitimize the American voting process. With that in mind, it should be difficult to abet these same actions—no, hope that the people who do these things will prevail—on TV.
But no one wants to see Scandal’s President Fitzgerald Grant out of office, despite the voting-machine manipulations that got him there. We want to see Olivia and her gladiators win. We want to see “Olitz” making sweet love all over the Oval Office (among other places). And we want more of that dark prince, White House Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene (the incomparable Jeff Perry).
Perhaps what we see in Scandal is a fictional opposition that is rendered more human than their real-life counterparts. In addition to being deft at political skullduggery, the Rovian Cyrus Beene is also a loving husband and a man keenly aware of the power refused to him as a gay man. We have watched a murderous Supreme Court justice struggling through chemo and seen an oil baron painfully deal with his addict daughter. It is true in real life, but too rarely in fiction, that even the most nefarious opponents are not wholly bad (though that may be hard to remember when one of them is wasting the nation’s time reading Green Eggs and Ham on C-SPAN). Scandal characters’ actions—no matter how outrageous—are often motivated by relatable human desires and emotions. That is part of what makes watching the show so compelling and conflicting.
And there is also this—Deep down many of us believe that the government may be a shadowy domain of rich and powerful schemers, immune to the wishes of the electorate. And there is some comfort to be found there. If what happens to our country is only governed by backroom deals, big business power grabs, and CIA plots, then we the people are absolved from responsibility. And if the masters of our fate can convincingly spit lines like Cyrus Beene—“You may be an animal, but I am a monster. And I am much more terrifying than you can ever imagine…”? Well, that’s just icing on the cake.
The talent of Shonda Rhimes and the Scandal cast is mighty, but that alone can’t make the viewing public love fictional voting-machine tamperers as real-life Republicans move to make it harder to vote across the nation. The genius of Scandal (aside from the sexed-up political intrigue) is how the show taps into its characters’ humanity, as it plays on latent societal suspicions about the nature of power. It presents a fictional dysfunctional government without nasty consequences and features players that we, sometimes, actually like. If only reality were so simple.