"Scandal" and How Insane Cast Chemistry Transforms One of TV's Worst Dramas Into One of Its Best
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How Insane Cast Chemistry Transforms One of TV's Worst Dramas Into One of Its Best

By Dustin Rowles | TV Reviews | May 6, 2013 | Comments ()

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On paper, ABC's "Scandal" may be one of the most overblown, ridiculous shows on television. Take a moment and consider what has happened on the series so far (spoilers ahead): A woman (Olivia Pope) who runs a high-profile PR agency is having an on-again, off-again affair with the President of the United States, who holds that position, in part, because she helped to rig the election, a secret that has resulted in the President murdering a Supreme Court Justice, in a nearly-successful assassination attempt on the President himself, and a power grab by the Tea Party Vice President. But wait! There's so much more: The First Lady faked a pregnancy to avoid a public relations disaster, then actually got pregnant in order to make true the lie, and as recently as last week, confessed to the media -- in an interview with the gay Republican Chief of Staff's boyfriend -- that her husband has been cheating on her, a secret that she's known for years. Meanwhile, the Chief of Staff may have had one of the President's ex-mistresses murdered, the muscle for the PR agency (Huck) is a former assassin for the CIA who was brainwashed into believing that he no longer has a wife and child, and another member of the PR agency changed her identity after her boyfriend was killed by one of the people responsible for rigging the Presidential election. Oh, and the director of the CIA was recently murdered, and had it staged as a suicide, after he was wrongly implicated as a mole in an insane operation that's been the center of much of the season.

Honestly, this is just a taste of what's gone on in "Scandal," and it's only in its second season. What's even more remarkable about the series is that, not only is it compelling television, but a philandering President who murdered a Supreme Court justice and his mistress, who rigged a Presidential election, are likable characters, with whom we have a rooting interest. It is confounding.

"Scandal" shouldn't work, and honestly, I'm not entirely sure why it does. It's not because of Shonda Rhimes, the showrunner behind "Scandal" and "Grey's Anatomy," who is responsible for the storylines, because the storylines are absurd, and the show has chewed through more plot in 27 episodes than Breaking Bad would in 27 seasons. The writing is not particularly great, either. Here's a sample line, delivered by Olivia Pope to her assassin and close friend, Huck, who she saved from homelessness a while back:

I have to admit, I'm not a person who gives change to homeless guys in the Metro. I don't do that. I don't stop, which is. I don't stop. But I stopped for you. You made me stop. It was your eyes. You have the saddest eyes. They were sadder than mine.

That's meant to be a poignant scene, and it is, despite the silliness of the dialogue, and the ridiculousness of the situation. Context won't help, either. Context makes it sound even more absurd.

tumblr_mm7gbnfIy61qaa163o1_250.gifYet, "Scandal" is one of the most enjoyably addictive shows on television. Some weeks, it is so absorbing, enthralling, and riveting that it's hard to even classify it as a guilty pleasure. I want to attribute the success of the series to the acting, but even that's a stretch. Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope does things with her mouth and eyebrows that, if you were watching "Scandal" on mute, would make you think she's having a simultaneous orgasm and migraine. Guillermo Díaz, who plays Huck -- the most lovable hit man on television -- delivers his lines with clipped stoicism, while Tony Goldwyn -- who plays President Fitzgerald -- is probably the only guy who can look like he's having a bowel movement while reluctantly accepting a blowjob from the First Lady in the shower. But it works. It works because Columbus Short is fast-talking charm; it works because Joshua Malina is Joshua Malina; it works because the First Lady (Bellamy Young) is deliciously evil, it works because I don't know whether to love or hate the Chief of Staff (Jeff Perry), and it works, of late, because Scott Foley is playing a charming operative who is either Olivia Pope's savior or her worst enemy, and I can't tell which from week to week.

"Scandal" is an aberration. It's a show where nothing works, and yet everything does. Do ten wrongs make a right, because that's exactly what seems to be at play on "Scandal." I can't stop watching, and yet if I were to pull any one element out of the series and analyze it critically, I'd be completely baffled. It's the perfect storm of over-the-top writing, melodramatic acting, and absurd storytelling that's all tenuously held together by duct tape and some of the best chemistry on television. It's only a matter of time, of course, before it all falls in on itself and implodes under the weight of its own silliness, but until then, it's one of the few remaining hour-long pleasures of network television, and I'm going to ride it out as long as I can stand it.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Welldressed

    This show is THE TITS. Any complaints about its insanity are moot. I understand and appreciate your arguments as always Dustin, but don't you be sayin' nothing 'bout my Scandal!
    For the love of god, they named (a particularly frenetic episode) "Molly, You in Danger, Girl".
    That alone is worthy of TV Hall of Fame.

  • Sirilicious

    I enjoy the show lots. It annoys me how many times per episode Olivia is on the verge of crying. I don't believe a succesful woman has to be hard/manly/bitchy/cold to be succesful, but i also don't think that she needs to get close to tears at the drop of a hat.

  • cgthegeek

    I'm just so happy to see a Black woman as the lead in a drama (where all the men want her and all her co-workers respect her) I honestly don't care what a HOT MESS of a show it is I just want it to stay on the air, lest it be ANOTHER 40 years before we see this on our TV screens again.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    So...the gist of this is 15 wrongs make a right as long as the chemistry is palpably hot. Is this maybe the bizzaro world version of a Tom Cruise movie where the plot is enjoyable, but he doesn't have enough chemistry with the leading lady to light a match (e.g. Oblivion)?

  • Ruthie O

    I agree about everything EXCEPT that the notion that Fitz is likable in any way. He is a damn sociopath who killed a friend, devastated his wife, neglected his children, and forced himself upon his mistress numerous times. I have never seen Fitz do anything kind or compassionate for any character on that show. Fuck, at least the morally bankrupt VP clearly cares for his husband.

  • e jerry powell

    First Dustin, now AV Club...

    My plan for world domination is succeeding.

    But the most complex thing about the show is, like Breaking Bad, like Mad Men, everyone in all the shows is morally compromised, to varying extents. The characters we empathize with most tend to be morally compromised for (less) self-absorbed reasons that the characters we see as being more "evil," and strangely, the "evil" characters are capable of a great deal more introspective honesty than most TV writers seem to imbue characters on other shows with. (That is the respect in which I think Showtime programs flame out; I can't come up with many characters on Showtime sitcoms who are ever honest enough with herself -- they're almost always women -- to look at herself and acknowledge why she does what she does. It's always about whatever is most expedient in circumstances that aren't completely out of her control).

  • Three_nineteen

    Wow, that sounds exhausting.

  • JeanUK

    I frigging love Scandal and not in a guilty pleassure ironic way.
    Sure, I am away of its shortcomings and on paper mostly all the characters should be detestable but I just friggin love it.
    Its definitely has something to do with the chemistry, its incredible how the whole cast has got it.

  • Louise

    It's so ridiculous, and frankly I don't really care about the central love affair. And yet I love Olivia's team. Weeks that don't feature them working together (and previouly boring Quinn becoming a psycho apprentice to Huck) are boring.

    Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope does things with her mouth and eyebrows that, if you were watching “Scandal” on mute, would make you think she’s having a simultaneous orgasm and migraine

    It's like she's convinced she has a mouth full of caramel and must exert all possible effort to be understood. Watching her makes my teeth hurt.

    But I'm watching.

  • youareacrackervonpatriarch

    I'm pretty sure she's not intentionally "doing" anything with her mouth. It's just how her mouth moves when she talks. I know you're not used to seeing people with such lovely full lips speak on TV, but that's what it looks like.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    That caramel comment is the perfect way to describe it.

  • Louise

    So that quote should have been italicized but I'm incompetent.

  • PinkGlitteryBrain

    I love that she looks down at his dick when she says horny.

  • Jules

    I love the shit out of this show. I used to be embarrassed because it's so over the top soapy and just completely ridiculous, but then I just stopped caring.

  • I'll have to disagree. The drama between whatsherface and the president was hot for a few episodes, but now it's just creepy and gross and annoying.

  • LaineyBobainey

    And I really do go back and forth on that. At times I'm like, "Oh, ENOUGH. You're acting like spoiled, petulant teenagers" and it gets on my nerves. But then something always brings me back and I'm all, "Dammmn, they're *really* hot together".

    But, yes, I also get annoyed by them.

    And then I get sucked back in.

    OHMYGOD, this is totally a co-dependent relationship for ME!

  • Rebecca Hachmyer

    It’s a show where nothing works, and yet everything does.

    Works. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  • habshockeygrl

    agreed, we started watching it on hulu out of boredom one night and can't stop

  • LaineyBobainey

    YES. Absolutely yes. It is divinely, maddeningly, atrociously, wonderful. I don't know how, but it is. And every time Fitz and Olivia give each other that stomach cramps look, I laugh a little, because they look ridiculous, and then my heart aches, because, homg, the FEELINGS.

    So, yes. Yes. Absolutely, yes.

  • girl. GIRL. just... I don't know why I love this show!!! The atrocious dialogue! But the scandals are... (wait for it) SCANDALOUS.

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