There’s something to be said about a show that absolutely knows what it is, yet consistently surprises itself along the way.
There’s something to be said about a show that doesn’t just settle for being a soap opera, but barrels headlong into the world of opera itself.
There’s something to be said about a show that lures the audience in and then bitchslaps them left and right until there’s almost no way for the viewer to orientate himself or herself.
Thus goes “Scandal” at this point, a show I’ve written about off and on since it started but never had much in the way of a consistent gig exploring the ins and outs of its machinations. Oddly enough, the time at which I did cover it (the first four episode of Season 2) might have been the weakest stretch, a time in which it was transforming from a moderately watchable caterpillar into a batshit butterfly. The end of that fourth episode introduced the conspiracy that has dominated the show’s narrative ever since. But at the time, I thought it an unnecessary contrivance.
So yea, point to Shonda Rhimes in this round.
The conspiracy angle managed to inject the show with a rocket that has sent the show from a case-of-the-week procedural into a multifaceted look at the reasons why people in power make the insane, rash, emotional decisions they do. We’ve seen a myriad of stories set in Washington, D.C., and most of those are dedicated to the maintenance of power. “Scandal” couldn’t give a flying fuck about that maintenance and instead focuses on the primal urges of those who just happen to occupy the most powerful seats in America. These people are not us, but that’s a matter of circumstance more than temperate.
Take tonight’s scene between Cyrus and James, which has to be one of the best scenes in any show in the 2012-2013 season. It was honest, it was humorous, it was sexy, it was blunt, it was deeply wounding, but above all, it felt deeply familiar. I’m not exactly a cheerleader for Rhimes’ past shows. But something about this subject matter, these actors, and this storylines has crystlalized something that makes her emotive approach to storytelling resonate beyond simply giving nicknames to hot doctors. Cyrus is the Chief of Staff to the President of The United States, but that only describes what he does, not who he is. In laying out his reasons for standing in the shadow of power rather than in the spotlight, Cyrus turned into someone simultaneously tragic and blasphemous all at once. He’s bold enough within his own convictions to feel confident that he could execute the office of the presidency. But he’s also terrified of the reaction the public at large would have about his sexual orientation. So there he is, naked, both literally and figuratively, both in front of the man he loves and the audience at home.
“Scandal” is a show that is comprised of characters of mixed ethnic, sexual, and socioeconomic backgrounds. It usually doesn’t make a big deal of this, letting the fact that Olivia Pope’s office doesn’t have a single white male amongst its staff speak for itself rather than call attention to it. But last week, Cyrus noted (for what seemed like the first time) that Olivia’s skin color might make President Fitzgerald’s proposed divorce go down less well than were she white. This week, Cyrus’ sexual orientation helped define his career path. Things that have always been subtext are becoming text, and that’s a sign of the show’s growing confidence in its own storytelling. It’s not enough for the show to simply be colorblind. That works well to a point, but there comes a time in which the issues on display have to be addressed in order to make them valid. To its credit, “Scandal” is doing it, and doing it in a way that doesn’t feel didactic. Rather, it adds richness to an already complex tapestry.
Look, this could all fall of the rails at any moment. But let’s give credit where credit’s due: this show is burning through story without any fear of tomorrow, and yet the next day always seems to hold more promise than the last. Characters on this show speak so quickly that it seems that every sentence might be their last on Earth. That type of urgency is lacking in so many other shows, which are more concerned with achieving syndication rather than resolution. In this day and age, getting to 100 episodes is the exception, not the rule. I have no idea if “Scandal” will be good three weeks from now, never mind three years from now. But my God, it’s great now. There’s nothing for Olivia Pope nor her associates to fix. For what it is, “Scandal” is close to perfect right at this moment in time.