How Insane Cast Chemistry Transforms One of TV's Worst Dramas Into One of Its Best
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.
Yet, “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.