Like, we really need to. Scandal is in the middle of its fifth season, and by all measures, it is a hit. After a very short first season that centered on unraveling one mystery about government-sanctioned (maybe?) murder and cover up, the show hit its stride in its second season. The world of the show expanded past the lives of the 6 5 people (bye season one’s Stephen!) who worked at Olivia Pope and Associates and into the complexities of a non-government government agency and further into Olivia Pope’s personal life and long-time affair with the hunky President. Fun Fact Alert! Tony Goldwyn—who plays President Fitzgerald Grant and was previously most well-known for playing that piece of crap who murdered Patrick Swayze in Ghost—is the grandson of Samuel Goldwyn who you may know as the “G” in MGM.
Yes, Tony is part of a Hollywood dynasty, which we all should have guessed given the amazing hair with which he has been blessed. Let’s get back on track here. That’s not the first time a Hollywood Dynasty explanation has railroaded an otherwise interesting point I attempted to make, and I assure you it won’t be the last.
Right, so why do we need to talk about Scandal? As the show found its footing in its strong second and third seasons, something became clear to casual viewers of the program. This was a show you had to see. Not because it is the most solidly constructed show. The plot involving the shadowy B613 organization has had varied degrees of success over the run so far, and drama around Olivia’s parents and what their deal is has produced some of the highest highs (Papa Pope’s many intense speeches—“You. Are. A. Boy.”) and lowest lows (is Khandi Alexander just tired?).
The writing feels at times purposely and needlessly manipulative of the viewers, and some of the case-of-the-weeks have been downright unwatchable (season four’s look at the war hero and shooting survival couple who hate each other is one recent example). Even the central will they/won’t they, are they/aren’t they conflict of Fitz and Olivia isn’t without significant flaws. Fitz is hardly likable as the distant, calculating, sometimes drunk, but usually bland man in charge. Olivia, as her own father puts it “will always be the formidable Olivia Pope,” and often we find ourselves wondering, isn’t she just too good for the President? If this is the case, and the show has some pretty big flaws in terms of structure and character development, why then, do we need to talk about Scandal?
Because we need to. The show works well because it uses the highest emotional stakes as its backdrop and lets the politics and mysteries of the week brush up against that canvas. Molly Eichel and Ryan McGee, reviewers on one of the best TV criticism sites out there, the A.V. Club, make the compelling point that Scandal is both an opera and a soap opera , two mediums that ply their trade in the currency of emotion. I find this description incredibly apt, and I think it is precisely why the show is as engaging and engrossing as it is. The American Presidency is the closest thing we have to royalty in North America, and the (perceived) power of that office combined with the inherent folly of people in love lends itself to the highly charged emotional atmosphere that Scandal brings to the viewer in each episode. We are invested in Olivia Pope’s journey because of who she is and what she is (a formidable political fixer and a woman who loves a very flawed man). The emotional investment in the character should absolutely be credited to Kerry Washington’s committed, nuanced performance, and also to a writing team that puts her character’s motivations ahead of the other players in the series.
Our emotional tie to the series is what makes it so very, fundamentally compelling, and it also allows the series more wiggle room when it comes to details of plot, believability and meaningful characterizations for its secondary players. Harrison is the most obvious example of a character who lost any meaningful role on the series, but Huck, Quinn, and even Abby have all become more two-dimensional than we expect of our prestige dramas these days. Despite a flawed structure and at-times weak characterization, I still watch Scandal because I have to. The emotional stakes are extremely high, and I’m bound to the show along with them.
There are critics who would use the adjective “soapy” in a derogatory slight against the program. Soapy is a loaded term that comes from a patriarchal point of view that (foolishly) writes off emotion in storytelling as both feminine (not true or helpful) and somehow less valuable than other art forms (which is completely bogus). The work that Scandal is doing in telling compelling stories from a female lead’s perspective should be held up as a shining example that “soap” is a powerful tool, and one that should never be dismissed. In the current network TV landscape, Scandal is proving as formidable as its leading actor, and it’s precisely because it has embraced the opera/soap opera format and used it to achieve a dedicated fanbase who just have to talk about it.