Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Politics of ABC's Scandal

ABC's political drama Scandal has been picked up for a second season. Let's talk about it! There will be spoilers!

The Show
Scandal follows a team of crisis-experts (who consider themselves "gladiators in business suits") run by Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) who 'fixes' political problems. She does this by any-means-necessary but generally does it by savvy communications control and legal maneuvering. Pope is a genius salvage expert who can turn a dire situation around--and has. People come to her for help from everywhere and if she takes the case (if she feels they deserve it) she's all in.

Her team of expert-misfits have been assembled from the wreckage of their various lives and so, as they were rescued by her, they're ultimately loyal. Each episode tends to have a drama-of-the-week and an arc which deals with, well, scandal in the white house.

The Scandal
The scandal is that POTUS Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III (who plays a Republican president--but one with a gay chief of staff who is pushing The Dream Act) isn't in love with his wife--he's in love with Olivia Pope (who saved his campaign). They slept together on the campaign trail and someone (it turns out vice president's assistant) got an audio tape of it (the president with the mystery woman--but presumably NOT his wife) and so, as the political temperature of America heats up the secret starts coming out. He also (maybe) slept with an intern (sound familiar) and she's (maybe) going to talk.

Is it true? At first it's hard to say (the president categorically denies it and Pope believes him). The intern, it turns out, was pregnant. Then she's dead. There's a double black-mail scheme, leaks to the press, and layered secrets. This all comes to a head when the vice president's aide decides to go public with what he has ... and things look like they might exploded and bring down the administration!

It's hard to tell who the good guys and bad guys are--it's a nuanced cast of characters, all of whom are fallible. The show's creator Shonda Rhimes did Grey's Anatomy and knows how to keep a drama taut and sexy (my wife, a physician, has specially cut 'Grey's Anatomy' lab coats designed for the show but now worn by real doctors). It's a competent effort and does at least a network-TV credible job of showing insight into politics and control of the narrative.

I found her cast to be a bit too ... twee? Is that the word? Each of them seems to have had their own scandal and it's not clear that they'd be both in-need-of-rescue and "super experts." To be fair, one of them was a used car salesman--and has yet to show any incredible expertise (we've also never seen him sell a car on the show) but it still smacked a bit of putting the scooby gang together. Washington, however, is ultimately watchable and carries the show even when Katie Lowes (the "new girl on the team") sort of brings the narrative down because she, like us, doesn't seem to be quite sure what she's doing there (note: the actress is fine--but the character seems to be one dimensional: a person who has some deep secret we're not in on who has clearly been traumatized and is recovering as she helps the super friends fight crime, etc.).

In any event, Scandal may not be transcendent TV but it's smart and watchable. It isn't as smart as The West Wing and it isn't as watchable as, say, Buffy The Vampire Slayer--but it holds its own well enough.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of Scandal
Making the president an ex-governor of California doesn't, in 2012, even remotely excuse his politics. In the show's narrative he was running against (and losing to) the ultra-religious, ultra-right wing Kate Burton who lost to him after Pope got involved and became his vice president. While she opposes him on things like gay marriage and the dream act she's still up there lending him credibility because she wants to be the next--and first woman--POTUS.

This, folks, is a pipe dream: specifically it's a liberal pipe dream. I don't know Shonda Rhimes' politics but, man, I can guess. Let's count the problems with this:
  1. The idea that, in today's age, a Republican president would not just support but champion gay marriage and immigration rights is the kind of wishful-thinking that made Obama think he could just sit down with "folks across the aisle" and work things out. Unh-uh. The country is pretty divided right now and those are not currently on the 'R side of the ticket.
  2. The idea that you'd get a "unity ticket" composed of the primary winner and the next-runner up as VP. There's a reason we didn't see this with Obama and Hillary and won't (probably) see it with Romney and Santorum. The problems are two-fold: first, in today's primaries, both candidates have spent a lot of time and money trashing each other. After all those attack ads it's going to look unseemly for, say, Santorum to really get out there and promote Romney (who he's called the White Obama). Would he do a good job of it? Yes--and that's the problem: seeing our politicians lie expertly isn't a good feeling. The second reason is that they're pretty far apart on policy (Obama and Hillary, not so much--which is why she might be able to be VP next time around). The idea of the VP is that they're a "hot backup" for the president--not a regime change or a consolation prize for the losing faction.
  3. Having a gay chief of staff goes even beyond gay rights. It's true that people don't vote based on who your chief of staff is, as a rule, but no one thinks, for example, that Huntsman wouldn't be a reasonably good statesman. He tanked because, amongst other things, he didn't have the right line on global warming--and was chummy with the Obama administration when he was ambassador to China. These connections would be fatal.
I conclude that Scandal takes place in an alternate universe where Republicans were the "opposition party" the liberals wished they were.

My second issue with Scandal's politics is all the killin'. In this case two parties have access to killers: Olivia Pope employs an ex CIA / NSA (he's a computer intrusion genius) assassin--and it turns out the Chief of Staff has one too (he sends his assassin to kill the innocent / sympathetic intern--this is a major reveal in the last episode).

I'm willing to accept that both these guys "happen to know black bag wet-work operators from their previous lives:" if Olivia Pope can rescue the car salesman who is raw material for an 'Olympic-level' crisis team it is no less preposterous that she can 'rescue' a black-ops guy and turn him to good (?) on her side. The Chief of Staff is probably ex-military and maybe commanded those guys? I don't know.

However: although the show does get it right in that the president, even facing the end of his career, isn't ordering people killed (that, see, is done for him by a subordinate--although in this instance he really didn't know and wouldn't have allowed it--he's sleeping around in a love-less marriage--he isn't a psychopath) I think it requires almost super-human capabilities on the part of these operatives and an unrealistic level of trust in them.

The intern is pregnant and sequestered in Pope's high security home. It takes a very special guy to be able to break in and do this. The guy you have to have access to must:
  1. Know security systems, locks, breaking-and-entering
  2. Be able to handle the surveillance (he must be sure there is no one else home) commit the murder (the easy part), leave no evidence (a bit harder--maybe impossible if things go slightly wrong), and then move the body alone and dispose of it by himself (this is very hard--consider how many people are caught when bodies wash up, etc.).
  3. Be completely trustworthy at the point of hire and then later since he can easily have evidence about what was done and if the "money is transferred" (as it is discussed in the show) it will leave an electronic trail.
  4. Finally the risk (you go to jail forever or are executed) must be worth the benefit (having a gay-friendly  administration so they can adopt a baby). NOTE: Washington DC, where they presumably live, already allows gay adoption / second-parent recognition (so what the heck!?)
I want to compare this to another TV show Rubicon. The show Rubicon was one of the smartest conspiracy shows on the air and it involved a scene where the conspiracy's expert killer (no less expert than the guy in Scandal) goes to kill off the main character. He does everything mostly right and gets unlucky. The killer winds up being killed instead by a guy with no combat training and no handy weapon all because something minor went wrong.

That's reality. How do I know? Look at the raid on Bin Laden's compound: the very best--the very best guys in the world trained for months as a team to cover contingencies and surprises and to ensure that it worked. It almost didn't (the helicopter crashed). Look at Carter's rescue of the Iran hostages? That did not go well (the helicopter crashed). If you don't believe me, ask an expert: the question on a mission is not if something will go wrong--it's what will go wrong.

That is why you don't see too many expert solo operators.

So I think that Scandal's politics are made for Hollywood and its action-adventure part of the show is made for TV. On the other hand, you know, it's still exciting.

As a third and final issue, the thing that Scandal gets really, really right is that crisis management is critically about controlling the narrative. You have to, when the crisis breaks, get a good solid story together (overnight, literally) and get it in front of the press and (now) social media. That's critical. You can bet Toyota wishes they had when the stories about the accelerators sticking were going around. You know the Vatican wishes it had when its own scandals broke. Getting the right story (denial may not be an option--and you don't know in the first 'golden hour' of the crisis) is hard--that's why you need experts.

Scandal does a decent job of this and it's fun to watch.

Scandal was picked up for a second season and I'm glad: it needs a few more shows to see if it can develop its cast into something truly special. It already met the bar for interesting TV and whatever compromises it made, I suspect it's smart enough to know they were compromises. It falls a little short of Game Change's verisimilitude but it doesn't insult the knowledgeable viewer (save for the liberal-Republican thing) like Ides of March did. I'll keep watching.

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