Three day weekends are for binge-watching, right? I mean, that’s certainly the impression I got from the piles of “What to Binge-Watch This Labor Day Weekend” listicles that popped up last Friday. And since I like to be on-trend, I sat down and watched ten episodes of Scandal on Sunday night.
(“Sat down” isn’t exactly right though, because sitting is hardly conducive to the amount of flailing about required by ten straight episodes of Scandal, a show that devours plot like nothing since maybe the second season of The Vampire Diaries. I was positioned in more of a full-body sprawl, to allow for a full range of motion.)
I’m late to the party on this one. I’ve been hearing about how juicy and soapy and compulsively watchable the show is since about mid-way through this past season, Scandal‘s second, but I hadn’t taken the time to revel in Kerry Washington’s piercing performance as D.C. fixer Olivia Pope, or the twisty-turny plot, or the Shonda Rhimes-iest names ever penned by Shonda Rhimes (President Fitzgerald Grant? Huck and Quinn Perkins and Hollis Doyle? And the name Arizona Robbins has nothing on Cyrus Beene) until this summer, when I started parceling it out an episode or three at a time.
And what I watched, I enjoyed. Most of the non-Olivia Pope characters fell flat in the first season, and I’m not a huge fan of the fixer procedural format, but as the show started fleshing out its periphery, and as the serialized plots became more complex, Scandal grew into the fast-talking, well-dressed, semi-alcoholic daughter of The West Wing and Grey’s Anatomy. It also went butt-crazy insane.
Season two has an assassination attempt, vote tampering, cold-blooded murder, bribery, a high-level government mole and then some. You cannot be a character on Scandal and also be a good person. On this show, powerful men order hits like they’re dinner and the charming guy from your morning meet-cute has a half-dozen cameras planted in your apartment, the better to monitor your every move. You’re not allowed on screen unless you’ve got a closely guarded secret (some of which are more interesting than others) and some sort of nefarious skill, like lock-picking, safe-cracking, lying or torture. Should you happen to find love amidst all the drama, lies and devastation, be prepared to break up and make up at least 5 times before the year is out. You should also count on spending time in either the hospital or jail, or both if you’re especially unlucky.
All of this could easily go completely off the rails, but there are a few things that hold the show together. The first is Olivia Pope. Shonda Rhimes has been filling ABC with complex and varied depictions of women since Grey’s Anatomy went on the air in 2005, and Scandal‘s central character is no exception. Olivia is smart and strong-willed and she commands respect from her employees–each of whom considers her to be, in some way, their savior–and her clients alike. She’s a strong woman and she’s a powerful woman, not to mention the first African-American woman at the center of a network drama since the 1970s, but she also loves fiercely and freely, takes lost causes under her wing, and has, undoubtedly, the largest collection of elbow-length gloves on the east coast.
Olivia Pope is an anti-hero, a woman who has done enough illegal and amoral things to get herself thrown into jail several times over, but her motivations are rarely selfish. She stands up for the little guy, she wears the white hat–sometimes literally–she is a champion for justice, but her methods have been known to involve torture. Kerry Washington portrays her with a warmth you don’t often expect from Strong Female Characters. More often than not she’s got her heart firmly stitched to her sleeve.
The other thing keeping Scandal together is the writing. Shonda Rhimes writes lovely, natural dialogue for her characters, as well as juicy, chewy monologues. This is hardly a new gift, even at the show’s worst, the characters on Grey’s Anatomy have always had distinctive voices, but Scandal has largely stepped back from the cutesy “McDreamy” and “va-jay-jay” quirks that show employs (though there is a running thing about “gladiators in suits” that I could do without).
And Rhimes backs her language up with actors that deliver it beautifully. Washington is phenomenal, yes, but so is Jeff Perry as the scheming, kind of evil and deceptively bumbling Chief of Staff, Cyrus Beene. Bellamy Young has turned the equally scheming and kind of evil First Lady, Mellie Grant, into a fascinating and even occasionally sympathetic character. Recurring characters like Debra Mooney’s Verna Thornton, Scott Foley’s Jake Ballard, Dan Bucatinsky’s James Novak and Gregg Henry’s Hollis Doyle help to round out the world of the show, and feel as solidly built as the series regulars–more solidly built in some cases
The show is not flawless. Most of the romantic relationships are dull and repetitive, and the one that gets the most screen time, the illicit, on-and-off-and-on-and-off-and-on-and-I’ve-lost-count affair between Olivia and the President (Tony Goldwyn), is probably my least favorite of the bunch. I’d happily watch a sitcom about Cyrus and his husband James, though, whose squabbley, loving and deeply messed up marriage was often the high point in the rougher early episodes.
And while the characters populating Rhimes’ White House feel like real people, the characters filling Olivia’s office are less substantial. Darby Stanchfield’s Abby Whelan falls flat unless she’s sharing the screen with Joshua Malina’s David Rosen–perhaps the only morally sound character on the show–and even though I only finished catching up a few days ago, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what Columbus Short’s Harrison Wright got up to this season, aside from standing around looking good in a suit. Huck (Guillermo Díaz) is perhaps Olivia’s best-developed employee, and he’s also the character with the most to hide. And while Katie Lowes’ Quinn Perkins was the character that first brought us into Olivia’s inner circle, she didn’t develop much of a personality until the back half of the second season. I’d like to see more from the staff of Olivia Pope and Associates and I hope that’s something that awaits us in season three.
Less than a month away from the season premiere, I’ve mostly got my fingers crossed that Scandal can maintain its pace. It’s not an easy thing to churn through that much story skillfully and many a show has stumbled at about this point. But the second season ended with a few juicy plotlines dangling off the metaphorical cliff, as well as the promise of more Scott Foley.
And I never object to Scott Foley.