“In less than twenty-six seconds we were taken from the Peanuts pumpkin patch to a steamy Scandal sex scene…The juxtaposition of a reliably classic family-friendly children cartoon special like The Great Pumpkin– a huge family draw every year for decades–with such a graphic bedroom scene is unjustifiable.”
These are sentences picked out of a statement written by Parents Television Council President Tim Winter. Besides the moral outrage, Winter accurately describes the unscrupulous transition in ABC’s broadcast that risked the innocence of children, though the sex was a tad boring, which is the real crime against humanity. Our children should see a better representation of intercourse than the stale old missionary position. However, millennials can breathe easy, besides the student loan debt and plutocratic government, that our postmodern culture’s abundance of pornography will heal these temporary wounds!
And while I would love to lambaste the useless moral outrage (or imagine the scintillating conversations of a council after party as members schlep their beloved brats to-and-fro) I want to contemplate the scene Winter described.
The doe-eyed child, still enthralled in Charlie Brown, helplessly watched the guileless cartoon fade to the titillating encounter in Olivia Pope’s (Kerry Washington) bedroom. This transition in mood from chaste-to-erotic, experienced by the child, is a form of corruption, in this case a corruption of the child’s innocence–a concept idolized by those preaching “family values”.
In this example, corruption is a derogatory word for learning. This belief that insulating a child’s innocence from obscene or harsh forms of art will help foster good judgment is simple-minded. Conversely, I’m not advocating for parents to treat a child like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, forcing them to endure a montage of pornographic imagery. My skepticism is in the presumption that occluding a wide range of experiences will result into a healthy adult. This belief assumes a child as a fixed being rather than a developing individual, and cherishes an artificial stability. Rather, I’d want to help a child understand and endure the myriad forces woven into the texture of our experience in the world.
But isn’t this wisdom revealed in the juxtaposition of the two shows? Bad children shows manifest an empty, artificial vision of reality. Teenagers face the same condescension. In my experience, the lowest forms were always educational movies on sex and drugs, which always had the opposite effect, only motivating me to acquire marijuana to combat the DARE programs, the stuffed animals, or the candy they’d offer us, as if we we’re obedient dogs.
Ironically, these dual levels, the chaste and innocent against the erotic and authentic, form the structure of every Scandal episode.
For those who have not seen it, the show revolves around Olivia Pope’s crisis management firm located in Washington D.C. Though ostensibly Pope calls herself a lawyer, on K street she’s known as the best fixer in town. She has a knack for helping powerful people out of career-ending jams: covering up affairs, cleaning up dead hookers, and manipulating the media. Scandal was created by Shonda Rhimes who also made Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice.
Each episode features a client in need of Olivia Pope’s counsel. In the first episode, Sullivan St. James, a U.S. veteran, walks into Olivia’s office with blood splattered over his hands, and across his button-up shirt. They sit him down, and he recounts how he found his girlfriend dead on the floor besides a pistol. Sully insists he didn’t kill her though Olivia’s team is skeptical of the story. But, contrary to her team’s suspicions, Olivia’s gut tells her to trust Sully, and becomes their client.
The show relies on Olivia’s intuition to move the plot forward. It often feels that Olivia’s depicted into having a divine will. In this fictional universe the mere mention of her name causes lawyers, executives, spies, even the President (Tony Goldwyn) to gasp and fear for their political lives. No wonder Rhimes started the series focused on Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes), the recently hired lawyer, who’s an obvious stand-in for the viewer, meant to ask naive questions, will be an excuse for further explanations, and will help us believe in Olivia Pope’s divinity.
After they take on Sully as a client, Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield) will breathlessly brief the team on Sully’s reputation and personal history. Every client undergoes the same examination. This assemblage of details are arranged in photos taped to office windows that serve as an interface for the team to peruse. It’s this shallow surface that Olivia has to protect against the potential repercussions of a scandal. Curious enough, Abby has a habit of flippantly tossing these fact sheets into the air while she speaks. A possible signal of how artificial a client’s reputation truly is.
Here, the dual levels appear: the public becomes the children transfixed on the client’s shallow reputation, and the various power-brokers become the parents, preventing the scandal from corrupting the innocent appearance.
It’s in moments of action when Olivia functions as a divine figure. In the first episode, no one knows if Sully really murdered his girlfriend, but this uncertainty does not stop Olivia from threatening David Rosen (Joshua Malina), the district attorney, into giving her team a period of twenty-four hours before they arrest Sully. It does not stop Abby from blackmailing a police detective into letting her take pictures of the crime scene. It does not stop Stephen Finch (Henry Ian Cusick) for prying an unofficial autopsy report from a lab assistant. It’s her resolve to protect the client which predictably leads her into preventing the truth from reaching the public.
But this resolve accords with the prevalent theme of redemption in Scandal. In all cases Olivia has faith in her powers to overcome or spin a client’s transgression into a benefit, or neutralize it completely. In an eerie way, her work appears to take on a Christian ethic. She castigates her team for not judging a client, particularly Abby. And always clarifies that the team works to fix a client’s problem, and not for justice–though conveniently they often achieve both.
Where Scandal stops being dramatic and ventures into the absurd is when the team has to act–for instance, the dialogue.
To provide a helpful analogy, I think good dialogue functions like a game of tennis, like Federer vs. Nadal. The sets can last for hours or seconds. They can have a rapid game of charging the net with quick responses, or a slow methodical game where players drift and dart all around the court.
Often Scandal‘s idea of dialogue is a character listening to another character deliver a long, overheated, drawn out monologue. The words spew out without any pause or concern if the other person understands or agrees. It begins to sound like:
If it’s annoying to read, try listening to a few:
Scandal‘s dialogue resembles a power serve to an empty court, launching the spoken word like artillery shells.
The truth is for a client’s case to be solved in a single episode, the writing has to cash out political transactions in a few interactions. Yet we’re supposed to believe Olivia’s a cunning fixer, when often she appears to be a political barbarian. Even worse all characters perform the same monologue with a similar cadence and delivery.
Nonetheless, a long speech moves the plot forward. Huck (Guillermo Diaz), the show’s resident hacker, delivers key items magically, without any repercussions, to the team. And being an ex-CIA agent, he also tortures and kills for Olivia, again, without consequences, in Washington D.C., even though the Pentagon and CIA know who he is, and where he works…
So a main character who has all the power and resources to solve any problem in-and-outside of the law–who does that sound like?
Not to worry, Scandal manufactures drama by locating the main conflict in the form of a secret either involving Olivia, or a secret Olivia refuses to tell her team. This happens every season:
Season One’s secret: the true identity of Quinn Perkins and Olivia’s affair with the President.
Season Two’s secret: Olivia’s involvement in voter fraud that helped elect the President.
Season Three’s secret: Olivia’s father role as the head of a CIA operation, and her mother being an infamous terrorist.
Another way to state these conflicts: Can Olivia Pope create a boulder so heavy she could not lift it? Shonda Rhimes’ answer is paradoxically yes and yes. Olivia creates and solves her own messes, yet is still depicted as a hero ultimately being a champion of the Good. It’s in these contradictions where I smell the whiff of a particular brand of Christianity.
We’re told God created the world, and is the architect of a plan that ends with the Second Coming of Christ. You’ve heard these religious bromides before: everything happens for a reason, or God has a plan for me. These platitudes are repeated, if not chanted, during times of pain and suffering. In a way, an individual can cope with an event if it’s just a link in a greater chain leading to happiness, and paradise, i.e. I may have lost my job, but it’s just a part of a greater plan. Though when you assert events like children with cancer, or the Holocaust, then that’s caused by the sins of man.
It’s important to note that we’ve been “blessed” with free will, yet it only seems to be a freedom to sin and suffer; suffering can never be the result of a lousy plan.
Like a God, Olivia Pope molds and crafts the necessary perceptions to sustain a client’s transgression. She’s willing to commit almost any deed, no matter how morally bankrupt it is. Even Quinn questions (or doubts) her ultimate motives:
“Why me? What about me?” Quinn asks Huck, “Why did she hire me? What about me says stand next to [Olivia] while [Olivia] decimates a girl with her dog.”
Huck replies, “You’re here because you worship her. You think if you’re near her, if you stand in her light, then you’ll finally do stuff that matters, because you need to believe that there’s something greater than uh nine-to-five crap job. That there’s a higher purpose, that your life has meaning, because the world feels big, and you feel lost.’
Later in the episode, Quinn asks Harrison Wright (Columbus Short): “You said we were the good guys?”
Harrison replies, “[Olivia’s] not one of the good guys, she’s the best guy. Not enough to say it, gotta believe it.”
Thus even the immoral actions are ultimately justified by faith in Olivia, just as sins and suffering are justified by God’s plan, just as any sinner can be forgiven and redeemed through faith in Christ, just as any scandal can be fixed by Olivia Pope.
Scandal embodies the very subversive act Tim Winter abhorred, it justifies sex and violence to preserve our coveted innocence.
Joshua Lukasik is a writer, reviewer, columnist, and a graduate of Columbia College Chicago, living in Lockport, Illinois. He’s a staff writer for Chicago Literati, and is currently working on a novel.