What The Increasingly Lousy 'Scandal' Could Learn from 'The Good Wife'
A reader recently asked if I’d continued watching Scandal after I wrote about it transforming from a guilty pleasure to a hate watch back in December 2013. That moment arrived the second that Huck licked the face of Quinn, thereby assassinating what was left of their characters.
I actually trudged on for the rest of that season, withering the arrival of Olivia’s Mom, but I finally checked out when we discovered that Olivia’s mother had basically been using her to further another of the show’s ridiculous evil schemes. Scandal had officially jumped over the shark and landed somewhere in the middle of season four of Alias. The only thing missing was Rambaldi.
After having quit for a full half season, however, I checked back in for the midseason finale because Shonda Rhimes had suggested that the episode was her favorite ever of series. I have no idea why she would say such a thing, and after watching last night’s episode as well, it’s apparent that nothing has changed about Scandal.
In fact, despite half a season away from the series, it wasn’t difficult to pick up the trail. Olivia, who is in a relationship with Jake, still has conflicting feelings, and both Jake and the President are still in love with her. Finn is still sitting in front of a computer, Huck is still torturing people, Abby is still facilitating, and David Rosen still won’t shut the f*ck up about that goddamn white hat.
I also gather that Cyrus has been sidelined, while Mellie — who is sleeping with Andrew, the new Vice President — continues to play both sides. The only thing I really don’t understand right now is the whereabouts of Olivia’s father, though I gather that her mother is somehow involved in his absence, though he will probably eventually show up and avail himself as the puppet master behind the current conspiracy.
As for the current storyline? It’s another Alias-like arc, in which Olivia has been kidnapped by one of the Vice President’s henchman; she was being held for ransom in some kind of bunker. The Vice President, meanwhile, is using Olivia as leverage to essentially orchestrate a coup by forcing the President to start an unnecessary war, thereby presumably bringing impeachment proceedings upon himself. The President and Jake, once again, have to join forces to save Olivia, who is doing a decent job of that herself by manipulating the henchmen into putting her onto the open market. Olivia is auctioning herself off to the highest bidder, knowing that she’s the chip that controls the Presidency. Meanwhile, Mellie will ultimately side with whomever has the upper hand at any given time.
This is no longer the series that we got addicted to in the first season. This is no longer a show about Olivia Pope repairing and salvaging the reputations of politicians mired in scandal. Everything that The Good Wife has done right over the course of that series is exactly what Scandal is doing wrong: The Good Wife is moored in reality. Control of the free world is never in question on The Good Wife, but somehow, the stakes feel higher.
That’s because The Good Wife is a character-driven drama, and when Scandal was at its best, that’s what it was, too. Now it’s destroyed itself in a snake-eating-its-tail game of one-upmanship. Eventually, the stakes get so high that you just don’t care anymore, especially when we have to contend with Olivia constantly vacillating between the right guy (Jake, whose murdering spree has apparently been forgiven) and her goddamn dream of making jam in Vermont with the President.
You can up the ante all you want, but it doesn’t make a goddamn bit of difference if the characters are essentially static, if they are repeating the same motions in a different arc every half season. The Good Wife succeeds by evolving the characters and changing the dynamics between them. Scandal fails because the writers are under the mistaken impression that we give a shit about terrorists, and coups, and conspiracies. The show is not about the characters anymore. It’s a 22-episode version of National Treasure driven by MacGuffins and characters whose alliances shift week to week. It’s exhausting, and we are numb to it. If Scandal wants to succeed again, it needs to reset, keep the storylines at a simmer, scuttle the President, Mellie, and Olivia’s parents, and refocus the show on what brought us to it in the first place: The scandals.