Washington is a city that loves to see itself on the television screen. Unlike New York or Los Angeles, neither of which is parochial or insecure enough to revel in the attention, the capital loves any affirmation of its glamour; it still takes quiet offense at the barb that it is Hollywood for powerful people who are simultaneously ugly and dull. So, it is no surprise that ABC’s late season series “Scandal”, which tries hard to inject some wit and sexiness into the conventional account of political tawdriness and cover-up, is buzz-worthy in certain sectors of the District. It helps that the show breaks genuine historic ground at the same time.
Most descriptions of “Scandal” have rightly accentuated the ground-breaking part: the casting of an African American woman (Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope) in the starring role in a drama is a development that has not happened either since Diahann Carroll appeared in “Julia”, or, perhaps, since Regina Taylor shared the lead role in the underrated and elegant “I’ll Fly Away”. (At this rate, a ten year old black girl will have her moment by the time I turn 65). It’s a weird—make it maddening, inexcusable thing—that there is still history to be made in the choice to cast a black woman in the lead, but it is unmistakable boldness on ABC’s part. Only three times in the life of our culture has a “big 4” television network trusted a black woman in an up-front role without a laugh track, and ABC to its credit ups the ante by rendering a narrative that has next to nothing to do with race or reimagining the culture of discrimination: no small thing in an industry that still makes movies about maids.
Olivia Pope is no sacrificing, modest victim of limitations. She is a stylish, equally lionized and feared practitioner of crisis management, which in the mythology of “Scandal”, is the business of burying the secrets of the high and mighty. (as to the impressionable among you, be advised that the real-life version of the profession has more to do with debunking corporate whistleblowers, spinning CEO demotions, and messaging sudden stock deflation). If you are the kind of viewer who catches the stray details in dialogue, it seems that Pope is a Republican—albeit, the moderate, feminist, non Tea Party loving kind. She was an instrumental member of the campaign team that elected the incumbent president, with whom she also shared a bed in between strategy sessions (a disclosure that was only slyly alluded to in the series trailer and which in a more intricate plot might have been late season cliff-hanger material, but which was offered up much too promptly within the opening hour).
But outside the novelty that is Pope, and the blend of sassiness and pout that Kerry Washington effectively contributes, this is a fair to middling hour that borrows a lot. It mimics the light, powdery stuff from other TV political fare–the repartee that turns conversation into an exchange of terse, but snappy, cool ripostes–is an old West Wing tic that “Scandal” distractingly, and poorly, imitates. There are the usual disjointed references to the true-to-life timeline, which only politically themed shows seem to bother with, and that serve mainly to clarify whose real foibles are official cultural punching bags. In the crisis of the week, there are the last-minute, the “clues are there early” revelations that feel familiar if “Law and Order SVU” is part of your television world.
“Scandal” is not “24”, though, which perfected the art of cloaking its large supporting casts in enough ambiguity that guessing who wore a mask and couldn’t be trusted was one of the program’s guilty pleasures. For three episodes at least, the sidekicks at Pope’s firm are un-mysterious, weak reeds who seem more like roster fill than fully developed members of an ensemble. There is meant to be more texture in President Fitzgerald Grant (a not terribly well known actor named Tony Godwin), whom we are told, is a masterfully charismatic politician whose flaw is his tendency to move from charm to seduction in a rather indiscriminate way that, of late, includes an intern who is coming apart. But that is a character arrangement so predictable that it barely intrigues, and the scripting of the president as a conviction-less, staff dependent drone undercuts the pretense of complexity. So far, this is a not a show that trusts viewers to unravel psychologies, or to find sinews of genuine unpredictability, in the narrative.
In fact, it is that barely cloaked disregard for its audience that keeps a promising show pedestrian. It surfaces not only in sub-plots that end too neatly, but in the relentless way “Scandal” packages and glides on stereotypes. It is jarring that an uber-powerful black woman like Olivia Pope in a city with a teeming black upper class seems pointedly uninvested in black men, and that the one consequential romance in her life is with a white man who made president: jarring until one remembers that the saga of the successful, lonely black woman and the ineligible pool of black man is a regular social trope in DC. It is noticeable that the one black male in the cast is both slick and bland, and not central to much of what happens—noticeable because it is a too common diss on black men in a suit. It is embarrassing, and too ordinary, that the non-Olivia Pope females draw so blatantly from caricatures of the neurotic or the manic professional woman.
The plots rely on the same trove of unexamined stereotypes. In episode One, the ambitious young anti-gay marriage Republican is a closeted homosexual who momentarily contemplates taking a rap for a murder he didn’t commit to avoid being outed. In episode Two, a DC madam’s prostitution ring consists disproportionately of portly, middle aged congressmen and Senators. The world that Olivia Pope inhabits happens to be the sum of the gossip at last night’s wine and brie reception downtown; its occupants are the unadorned straw men and women the culture constructs for us.
It’s hard not to dwell on the irony of a show that finally gives a black woman her due and then diminishes her with so little creative boldness. Imagine Olivia Pope matching wits not with straw-people but with the likes of the cunning, charming, guileful assembly around Julianne Marguiles’ Alicia Florrick on the “Good Wife”. Imagine the richness of Pope in the midst of characters whose depth and conniving matched her bravura, like the universe around Jack Bauer.
Maybe it all comes in the final five episodes that will determine the show’s fate. There is at least a hint of a plot that could twist in interesting ways: the unraveling of the president’s Illicit secrets, possibly with the help of a hidden enemy, and Pope’s inability to extricate herself from being attracted to her president, have potential. Or it may just be that ABC is content to depend on its mini-history, its shamelessly borrowed ambience and its stereotypes, and to leave the genius to others.