Saints and sin­ners

Noble, up­stand­ing char­ac­ters may be in short sup­ply on Seven’s Scan­dal. But grip­ping, in­sight­ful drama cer­tainly isn’t, writes Guy Davis.

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Even if you find your­self amused or be­mused by some of the more out­landish turns taken by Seven’s po­lit­i­cal drama Scan­dal, don’t go call­ing it a guilty plea­sure. You may con­sider it a com­pli­ment, but se­ries cre­ator Shonda Rhimes doesn’t ap­pre­ci­ate it.

“To me, it’s an in­sult­ing thing to say,” Rhimes said in an in­ter­view with web­site Salon. com. “Call­ing a show a ‘ guilty plea­sure’ is like say­ing ‘ I’m em­bar­rassed to say I watch it but I can’t stop’. That is not a com­pli­ment! Then don’t watch it, don’t watch it, please.”

Ah, but peo­ple are watch­ing Scan­dal – af­ter a slow start dur­ing its seven- episode first sea­son, it has at­tracted enough of a fol­low­ing in its sec­ond sea­son to be­come one of the most pop­u­lar shows in the US.

The rea­son for this would seem to be a will­ing­ness – an ea­ger­ness, even – to go be­yond its ini­tial con­cept of the pub­lic- re­la­tions firm run by fixer ex­traor­di­naire Olivia Pope ( Kerry Wash­ing­ton) clean­ing up the cri­sis of the week and in­stead be­come a high- pow­ered, hard­charg­ing drama that delves deeply into po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal in­trigue.

Olivia’s af­fair with US Pres­i­dent Fitzger­ald Grant ( Tony Gold­wyn) was a juicy part of Scan­dal’s early episodes. But in the sec­ond sea­son, their re­la­tion­ship has be­come far more tan­gled and com­plex, with the peo­ple in their lives all get­ting more and more en­snared in the web.

We’re talk­ing rigged elec­tions, staged as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempts and all man­ner of il­le­gal, im­moral be­hav­iour. Han­dled in the wrong way, one could see why it might be thought of as a guilty plea­sure. But there’s pierc­ing insight into hu­man na­ture at work here as well and it’s some­thing that gives Scan­dal a sharp edge.

Wash­ing­ton’s Olivia is no an­gel – she can be con­trol­ling and ma­nip­u­la­tive in some dis­qui­et­ing ways – and that’s some­thing that Rhimes, the cre­ator of Grey’s Anatomy, is happy to ex­plore.

“I feel like it’s re­ally awe­some, frankly rev­o­lu­tion­ary, to have a black fe­male char­ac­ter on tele­vi­sion who is the lead of the show who is not a saint,” she said.

“That’s what hap­pens, they al­ways make them a saint, and it’s re­ally bor­ing and no­body cares.”

Scan­dal is jam- packed with sin­ners. Or more ac­cu­rately, flawed, hurt­ing peo­ple who of­ten lash out with what­ever weapons they have at their dis­posal. One re­view aptly de­scribed the show as “a se­ries filled with hy­per­com­pe­tent peo­ple that can fix any­thing ex­cept the gnaw­ing feel­ing they de­serve the pain heaped upon them”.

Rhimes de­scribes the “whole point of the show” as the fact ev­ery­one is har­bour­ing what she calls “dirty lit­tle se­crets”.

“Every­body has things they’ve cov­ered up, every­body has things that they’re ashamed of,” she said. “Every­body has com­mit­ted their own per­sonal crimes. And we’re still un­fold­ing and un­pack­ing and fig­ur­ing out what ev­ery­one’s lit­tle crimes are. So there’s no­body good.”

No, not even Olivia Pope, even if she is the cen­tral char­ac­ter. “We’re forc­ing the au­di­ence to iden­tify with her and then ask­ing them to iden­tify with some­body who’s do­ing some­thing wrong,” Rhimes said.

Hey, if it works for the likes of Mad Men or Break­ing Bad, why not on Scan­dal? Scan­dal, Thurs­day, Seven, 9.30pm

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