Graeme Blun­dell en­joys a good Scan­dal

An Amer­i­can se­ries that ex­plores the murky world of po­lit­i­cal spin sig­nals a new era of post-racial TV

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell

WHEN racy cri­sis man­age­ment se­ries Scan­dal popped into the sched­ule late last year, I was in­trigued: it was sleek, pol­ished, so­phis­ti­cated, steeped in Wash­ing­ton pol­i­tics and riff­ing in per­fect sync with pub­lic dis­dain for the amoral shenani­gans of those who gov­ern the US.

From Shonda Rhimes, cre­ator of Grey’s Anatomy and its spin-off Pri­vate Prac­tice, Scan­dal seemed a kind of fem­i­nised The West Wing, pop­u­lated largely by fast-talk­ing, beau­ti­fully dressed scary women, glad­i­a­tors in su­per­high heels. Led by Kerry Wash­ing­ton’s Olivia Pope, the most pow­er­ful fixer in the cap­i­tal, they were the su­per-bright and pricey im­age mak­ers and con­sul­tants work­ing for Olivia Pope and As­so­ci­ates.

Their job was to help their clients con­tain life-ru­in­ing scan­dals of one kind or another and pre­serve their rep­u­ta­tions. Most of their clients were un­trust­wor­thy op­por­tunists for whom ly­ing and con­niv­ing were sec­ond na­ture; some were far worse, car­ry­ing bag­gage from the past. Mis­tresses had to be put in their place, af­fairs con­cealed, fi­nan­cial mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tions made good, and maybe even bod­ies dis­posed of.

The en­tire messy, if foren­si­cally ef­fi­cient, busy­ness was com­pli­cated by Olivia’s on­a­gain, off-again ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair with the pres­i­dent, Fitzger­ald Grant (Tony Gold­wyn).

But in Shon­da­Land (also the name of Rhimes’s pro­duc­tion com­pany), where ev­ery­one was du­plic­i­tous, schem­ing, cyn­i­cal and ruth­less, Olivia was still the good guy. Even though — and we loved her for it too — she might ap­pear to tra­verse moral and eth­i­cal lines at times. (The char­ac­ter was based loosely on Judy Smith, also black and rather svelte, a con­sul­tant who, among many other clients, rep­re­sented Monica Lewin­sky dur­ing the Bill Clin­ton sex scan­dal.)

Scan­dal didn’t dis­ap­point. It was a hoot — fear­less, sparky and kind of stylishly wan­ton, a cracker. From the start its al­most fe­ro­cious at­tack hooked and would not let go. It was a clever com­bi­na­tion of ro­mance, soap opera, the hard-boiled pri­vate cop thing, the po­lice pro­ce­dural and the racy po­lit­i­cal thriller.

It was also glo­ri­ously, sump­tu­ously, un­abashedly camp.

The se­ries, from com­mer­cial US broad­caster ABC, has re­turned for a sec­ond sea­son and a third is in pro­duc­tion: Scan­dal has be­come an in­dis­pens­able prod­uct for net­work TV. This new sea­son has seen the show break out in the US, tran­scend­ing its ini­tial glib cat­e­gori­sa­tion as ‘‘ a black per­son’s show’’, no longer a cult but a pop cul­ture phe­nom­e­non. Stylist Lyn Paolo, the woman be­hind Olivia’s wardrobe, is even credited with shift­ing the look of cor­po­rate wom­enswear this year.

As Forbes mag­a­zine pointed out re­cently, Scan­dal and the long-run­ning Grey’s Anatomy — both of which fea­ture eth­ni­cally di­verse casts and in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ships — are among the most valu­able prop­er­ties on the screen to­day. And not just in terms of the rev­enue from ad­ver­tis­ing, syn­di­ca­tion and li­cens­ing in other coun­tries. Au­di­ences have tuned out of broad­cast TV (even in Aus­tralia US shows are bat­tling, com­ing and go­ing so fre­quently it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to keep up with their dis­ap­pear­ances into late night’s wit­ness pro­tec­tion times­lots), and so have ad­ver­tis­ers. And cable TV’s shows have taken over the sense of cul­tural pri­macy, are at the cen­tre of any con­ver­sa­tion about the wor­thi­ness of drama and com­edy.

But Grey’s, the sur­pris­ingly hip dram­edy that has been around since 2005, had 20 mil­lion view­ers by the end of its first sea­son, most of whom are still with the fast, edgy melo­drama. And Scan­dal, which fol­lows it each week on the US net­work, picks up al­most 10 mil­lion. To­gether they pull in about 5 per cent of ABC’s to­tal rev­enue.

Less hyped is the show’s suc­cess among African-Amer­i­can au­di­ences. Ac­cord­ing to Nielsen rat­ings in the US, Scan­dal is the high­est rated scripted drama among AfricanAmer­i­cans, with 10.1 per cent of black house­holds, or an av­er­age of 1.8 mil­lion view­ers, tun­ing in dur­ing the first half of the sea­son.

This is un­der­stand­able as Kerry Wash­ing­ton is the first African-Amer­i­can fe­male lead in a net­work drama in al­most 40 years; un­like the few other black women who fea­ture in prime­time scripted roles, she’s hardly morally above scru­tiny ei­ther. She’s a good guy who can be a bad dude. As The New York Times pointed out re­cently, her cast­ing has prompted dis­cus­sion among academics and fans of the show about whether Scan­dal rep­re­sents a new era of pos­tra­cial TV in which cast mem­bers are not de­fined by their race or eth­nic­ity.

The new sea­son’s first episode picks up the same fran­tic, adrenalised pace and ex­haust­ing nar­ra­tive mo­men­tum as the first. Shrewdly, Rhimes en­sures it’s rel­a­tively easy to work it out if you’ve never seen it be­fore, with an ex­pert sea­son pre­cis in the pre-ti­tle se­quence. As White Hats Off opens, Olivia is on her way into court as her client and for­mer as­so­ci­ate, the woman once known as Quinn Perkins, faces charges of killing an ex-boyfriend and six other peo­ple with a pack­age bomb and then flee­ing the state of Cal­i­for­nia. The first big ques­tion: if she didn’t do it, why did she run?

As Olivia’s team digs deeper into her past it’s in­creas­ingly ob­vi­ous a big­ger scan­dal lies buried. The pres­i­dent is pin­ing for Olivia while deal­ing with escalating hos­til­i­ties in Su­dan, as his now preg­nant wife, the Machi­avel­lian Mel­lie (Bel­lamy Young), con­fronts him with the no­tion of ‘‘ Amer­ica’s baby’’.

Mean­while, Olivia Pope and As­so­ci­ates is hired by a con­ser­va­tive se­na­tor to cor­ral a soon-to-break sex scan­dal. Se­na­tor Shaw of Delaware (Jack­son Hurst) dis­cov­ered a cam­era in his of­fice that recorded him hav­ing sex with a woman on his desk, some­one he met at a fundraiser at the Smith­so­nian.

Sec­ond big ques­tion: is the DC gos­sip web­site, a right-wing blog called Cap­i­tal Spill, about to re­lease the tape?

Scan­dal seems even more stylish in its sec­ond sea­son, its ap­pro­pri­ated pre­mium cable-style aes­thet­ics even more pro­nounced. The vis­ual acu­ity is still com­pelling and sucks you in: you’re al­ways try­ing to work out just whose point of view the sub­jec­tive cam­era shots rep­re­sent. The lens moves across faces, finds tap­ping fin­gers and toes, glides with the char­ac­ters through the count­less cor­ri­dors of power, and glances from char­ac­ter to char­ac­ter with­out ever con­fus­ing.

The neo-noir cin­e­matog­ra­phy and pro­duc­tion de­sign are stun­ning, with deep-fo­cus com­po­si­tions in greys and greens, browns and moody blues shot on floaty long lenses, iso­lat­ing the fast-talk­ing char­ac­ters against an al­most dreamy ab­stract back­ground. If you lis­ten hard you’ll hear a trade­mark sound ef­fect that ref­er­ences new scenes, a kind of dig­i­tal cam­era’s shut­ter whirr.

It al­ways reminds me of the fa­mous ‘‘ chung chung’’ chime that sep­a­rates each scene in Dick Wolf’s Law & Or­der shows. It’s a kind of Brechtian de­vice meant to alien­ate us from the emo­tion, though the re­peated tone was of­ten re­ferred to as ‘‘ the Dick Wolf cash reg­is­ter sound’’. Rhimes’s tttshhhr-shhhr is sub­tler but adds a sense that no mo­ment is pri­vate for long when ev­ery­one is a pho­tog­ra­pher. And has a story to sell.

And I’m still as­ton­ished at the stac­cato,

Scan­dal

Kerry Wash­ing­ton in

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