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
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,
Kerry Washington in