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Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Politics Of: Scandal Season 2 (ABC's Political Drama)

I Wonder What Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) Calls Her Car?

Scandal Season 2
It actually isn't done yet--Scandal, performing well, is getting a full 22 episodes--but after the most recent, dramatic "finale" it sure does feel like it ended. So let's talk about it! There will be all kinds of spoilers.

Season 2
Scandal S02 gives us the scandal that "named" the show: the 'cabal', which includes almost every power-player in the cast save for the president fixed the election with rigged voting machines. Now, as the secret starts to unravel, someone makes an almost-successful assassination attempt on the president's life and he lays in the hospital while his very-right wing (and fairly nasty) VP has seized power! Huck (Pope's former CIA super-operative) gets played--and falls for it: he's all but set up to take the fall for the shooting! 

The major arc in season 2 threatens to overwhelm the scandal-of-the-week structure, which is fine, because not all scandals-of-the-week are all that interesting (the one with the rich guy enjoying a "second childhood" while his family tries to have him committed was funny but not gripping). We also got to see Olivia and President Grant "break up" ... "for good." Which was kinda painful because we know they're meant for her.

Before talking about the politics, I want to talk a little about that structure.
  1. We know that Grant and Pope are meant for each other because of how the camera and general direction treats them. Firstly, Grant's marriage is a marriage of political convenience--while Grant is 'cheating' he's still only 'cheating' on his wife because both of them understand they don't really love each other. This is not dissimilar to Homeland's Brody-Wife and Brody-Friend set up where the audience gets shown the melodrama of two people who clearly would be happier if they did the "obvious thing." Of course these's character's inability to do "the obvious thing" is the drama-engine that powers (that part of) the show.
  2. I think it's pretty clear that Scandal knew where it was going from Season 1--and that's, in my opinion, not all that common. It's laudable. Clearly show-runner Shonda Rhimes had come up with a super-scandal that she would unfold over one or two seasons. This is it--if there's another administration based scandal behind this one it'd just be silly. It hinged on season 1 question: "Who is Quinn Perkins" really and we get to see how that little thread leads the viewers to a larger whole. Notably, it also leads the investigators--but I don't especially buy that one (for reasons I'll discuss below).
  3. The show does something that is rare: show a president being emotional and vulnerable (I would write 'weak'--but I do not believe that is the case even if it would be more easily understood) while not being cast as the bad guy. Presidents have very specific roles in fiction--they are 'father figures' and 'the ultimate authority.' If a president is weak the whole country is tarnished. When a president is human, these are powerful moments: the real president in Superman 2, kneeling before Zod was a breath-taking moment: the entire country had just supplicated itself to a super villain. Watching Grant fume over his rejection by Olivia is certainly humanizing but when Scandal does this they drain some of their symbolic power off: in those scenes the United States of America is pissy because they can't get the girl they want. The more this happens, the less we take Grant for 'a president.' Of course that's not to say it's not realistic: we intellectually know presidents are human--but ultimately the show itself is not real and symbols are the only "real power" in the narrative.
  4. The structure of the show is pretty much carried, almost entirely, on Washington's back. If we didn't feel for Olivia Pope--and also revel in watching her kick ass--the supporting cast would not be enough to prop the show up. The secondary players have a few standout cast members (I call Jeff Perry as Cyrus Beene) but I think the show has given us two seasons without slowing the pace enough to give us a good amount of depth for the supporting cast.
In the end, though, while I think, personally, if Rhimes meticulously fills each of the remaining 10 episodes with the same over-arching scandal (the fixed election) it's going to wear out its welcome. The pace I'm getting a feel for should resolve this thing in the next 1-4 episodes.

I also want to call out the horrible tragic end-scene for the last episode: in retaliation for Huck being loyal to Olivia his girl-friend also-trained-assassin kills the "perfect family" that Huck had been surveiling in his spare time to see how normal people had a happy life. They had two girls (thankfully older than 10, I think). The woman went into the house and gunned them down. We got to see the graphic wounds and one of the kids tucked under the fallen mother where she clearly tried to protect her.

I think airing this in the wake of Sandy Hook (it was shot before) was a mistake: I did not want to see that and no amount of retaliation by the good guys could give me satisfaction after that.

The Politics Of Scandal (S02)
TV shows are not "real" (including, maybe especially, "reality TV!")--and even documentaries or films based on true events (like Fargo) are not random collections of facts: every bit of the movie whether a total fiction or a painstakingly researched documentary is put there intentionally by the creator. The whole thing, whether educational, dramatic, or even humorous, is a message. What is Scandal telling us it thinks about politics?

Voting Machine Conspiracy Theories
In Scandal S02 we learn that the cabal was able to make Grant win by rigging voting machines. Certainly a lot of people on both sides of the aisle are worried this could happen--or maybe did happen. Mostly these beliefs in 2012 are part of Republican Poll-Denier conspiracy thinking and are pretty ugly. Is Scandal's proposal--that a group with sufficient access could cook voting records, pushing their candidate over the top in key areas (Defiance, OH--a real place, it turns out--is where, in Scandal, they were able to effect a tipping point). Is it plausible?
  1. The big political question Scandal raises is: How easy is it to 'fix' a voting machine? The answer is, generally, not that hard if you have full access to it.Voting machines are tested, inspected by people from both parties if anyone cares to send an inspector (Romney, apparently, did not send inspectors to PA because, presumably, he knew he'd lost so who cared if the machines were rigged), and then have seals put on them similar to what customs use. Depending on how corrupt the chain of custody is (if you control the inspector, for example) you could get away with a lot of stuff.
  2. Secondly, how close would the actual vote have to be in order to not trigger howls of disbelief? I don't have hard numbers for that--but the answer is clearly "pretty close." If you count on machines to give you a landslide you're going to be inspected hard. So this means (a) Team Grant (his advisers  knew he was losing--but it was close--and then (b) instead of trying to win with that newfangled stuff like campaigning they went for the ultimate hail-marry of fixing things ... the old fashion way. This is, of course, more of a sure thing, but the downside is that you are going to risk everything. And, as even Scandal does point out, shenanigans are messy. Covering your tracks is usually harder than doing the deed in the first place.
I don't especially buy it--but it's a TV show.The message here is that "your worst fear" makes a pretty dramatic story. I'm sure the Scandal creators could have come up with a more plausible scenario and I'm pretty sure they are liberal and don't think the actual election was stolen. But they do know that the story will resonate well,

Competent Killers
The second aspect of the political Scandal-verse is that if you are "a player" you have access to super-killers. In real life, even 'The Mod' didn't have hyper-elite movie-style hit-men. They had psychopathic drivers who were willing to kill for money. In real life, having--or trying to have--someone killed is very messy and hard to pull out of when things start to go wrong.

Scandal does, to its credit, show the consequences of killing: things fall apart. Innocent people die. Heat starts to build and the press gets motivated to break the story. However, in the case of Scandal it feels to me like the consequences and things unraveling are driven more by the need to move the plot along than by a mental simulation on the parts of the author around "what would really happen."

In the Scandal-verse killing is a pretty good option: questionable technology works without a hitch (remote-guided guns certainly exist--but I do not believe these are serious weapons the way they are presented in Scandal). Basically the political terrain of Scandal is more "the movies" and less "real life" because you can get your hands on hyper-competent, hyper-loyal (in the sense of keeping their mouths shut) assassins. In real life, I do not believe it is so easy.

I think this is more narrative crutch than actual content (the story with body-counts and double-dealing is far more interesting than it would if it was more realistic)--but consider this: the message is that politicians are (pretty much by nature--and with few exceptions) ruthless. They are desperate and underhanded and dirty: and they get away with it!

Republicans Are Bad At Heart!
When  the president is unconscious (maybe dying) in the hospital, his chief of staff is running things until either (a) he dies or (b) he comes back. The VP--who is not presented as sympathetic at all--and is far to the right of President Grant--gets congress to put her in charge and she immediately affects a helicopter landing on the white house lawn--a landing zone reserved for the president only. Then she goes after a sitting justice of the supreme court, effectively blackmailing her to resign or else (or else she'll release medical records and ruin the justice's legacy).

I assume this is the real succession of powers and it illustrates a key point I made early on: the selection of VP is not a consolation prize for the next-runner-up (so Romney did not choose Santorum and Obama did not choose Hillary). This is one reason: VP is supposed to be the succession-of-power and continuation-of-business of the office. The VP is the "hot back-up" in IT server terms. Having a VP who would be a 180-U-Turn on policy doesn't do this ... it does the opposite.

The message here is that, as I said, Republicans are bad and don't let the telegenic, sympathetic Grant fool you--the VP is a lot more like the real Santorum than Grant is like the real Romney.

Conclusion
Scandal is a good show--and they were right to extend it (so long, I say, if they play this high-stakes drama out quickly rather than strrrrrrrrreching it.Scandal is smart--but not quite brilliant. It's watchable--but so far Washington is carrying most of the burden. It falls short of sophisticated in its messaging but the craft is great television. I'd like to see one of the premium channels (HBO, Showtime, etc.) take on something more like this and see how they'd do with the same raw materials.




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