Watching ‘Scandal’ Is Like Riding a Runaway Train — Hang on Tight!

The stellar second season of ABC’s Scandal unfolds – and refolds in on itself, and twists and turns and retwists itself into ever greater, thornier knots; and zigs and zags, and jerks and jukes; and wends and weaves wildly through all its narrative and emotional traffic. Then, after almost plowing into a brick wall going 150 mph — it stops on a dime. Then it immediately shoots off into an unseen tangent aimed straight at another brick wall, then smashes through that brick wall! Then, it builds up again only to plow right back through the brick wall in reverse. Shake and stir, rinse and lather, and repeat repeat repeat (all this sometimes in one episode).

Whew! Watching all of this, all of Scandal‘s “allness” (and it, unlike almost anything else on TV right now, is all things, an “everything and the kitchen sink” kind of show) racing and tearing off at breakneck speed, always out of breath… well, it’s all quite breathtaking, indeed. It’s sometimes hard to really choose which is more breathtaking: the ever exponentially accelerating rate at which the show spits out, chews up and resolves plot twist after plot twist; or Kerry Washington’s stunning highwire act as brilliant political fixer Olivia Pope. Let’s call it even, and everyone goes home a winner.

Scandal‘s abbreviated first season—it was a mid-season replacement in 2012–showed promise, and some signs of what was to come. Presented as a sort of rote legal procedural (Pope’s crew of various disgraced or damaged “experts” whom she has taken in and “fixed” herself, assembling them into a crack team, and they are loyal to a fault), the show introduced a central mystery of a sexual liaison – and thus potential scandal, natch — between newly minted President Fitzgerald Grant and a White House intern.

At first this was mostly a sideshow, as the early episodes were more of the “case of the week” variety (where Pope and company fix a variety of hairy problems for political and/or moneyed clients, most of which solutions involve activities of dubious legality) that is the bedrock of seemingly all lawyer/medical/police shows. Of course, it was quickly revealed that the real core scandal of the show — its central relationship and the generator on which everything else will run – was/is the torrid affair between the President and Pope herself.

Pope, it turns out, was the central designer of Grant’s successful campaign. Even though she has since resigned her post as his aide, his inability to put an end to the affair – and for Pope to stay away – courses through these early episodes, giving the show enough juice to power through to a second season.

And wow what a season the Second one is! There are hints of Scandal‘s nascent greatness and its narrative expediency, in Season One, but the first few episodes of Season Two seem content to spin their wheels, reintroducing audiences to the cast and the show’s premise with a few episodic case of the week type-episodes. Then, almost out of nowhere, one big shocking moment drops out of the sky, and Scandal slams the pedal to the floor and charges off, running pell-mell into an ever deepening conspiracy surrounding… well, it would be critically irresponsible and possibly criminal to give anything away.

Scandal is best approached and watched unspoiled (except for the President/Pope affair, which I think everyone coming to the show knows about), as it ratchets up the tension, tightens the screws, and starts throwing out red herrings, big reveals, even bigger red herrings, and grandiose lunatic reveals and cliffhangers and twists, stacking them up and up and up until they nearly teeter over and bring the whole thing crashing down. Even if you are the most seasoned television viewer, and have seen every trick in the book, I promise you – you won’t see more than ten percent of what Scandal throws at you coming.

Scandal is cunning and coy, and plays with expectations and always does… well, not the opposite of what you think you expect, exactly, because that would be something you’d expect. It’s more like you think you just about have it in your grasp, you think you know where everything is headed, but then it adds that one little stinger that you never noticed hidden away, and that’s the real important thing. That’s the thing you couldn’t miss, because you could never think of it being there. It comes storming the gate as One Thing, and then just keep shedding more and more of itself to be more and entirely other than what you ever imagined. It’s like a Trojan Horse of Russian nesting dolls that that are also Trojan Horses themselves, to mix metaphors and symbols or whatever.

Scandal‘s great trick is knowing exactly when to jump of the runaway train before it goes crashing off the bridge. No matter how reckless it seems, or how ludicrous the plot twists, everything lines up in place at the end of the day, everything has an explanation and makes sense within the universe of the show. In other words, everything is, in the end, fixed. And it does this over and over again, and so smartly and so well, you wonder how creator Shonda Rhimes and her writers will continue to sustain this pace.

Plot twists and story-arcs that other shows would take an entire season to resolve (ahem… Revenge…. cough, cough), Scandal dispatches in an episode – sometimes halfway through an episode. It cycles through two increasingly complex story arcs, which any other show would ride for years, in one season. Nothing stays put and festers, and this is right in line with our heroine’s inimitable talent for resolving problems as expediently and expertly as possible.

Scandal is such a well-engineered, well-oiled thrill machine that it’s often easy to overlook its other strengths. While on the surface it seems like yet another ensemble procedural cross bred with a sudsy nighttime soap (shot through with political intrigue), the more the show burrows into its on ludicrous plots, the more human (and humane) all the characters become.

Washington straddles a line between cocky self-confidence and tremulous emotional fragility – for all the assured control she seems to possess as Olivia, she also always seems just on the verge of falling apart as the burden of her secrets and her repressed passion threaten to burn her from the inside out. It’s just the most stunning female performance you’ll see on TV these days, and if Washington doesn’t win the Emmy this year, it will be, well, scandalous indeed.

But Scandal is not one woman show – her entire crew comes into its own in Season Two, especially the enigmatically heartbreaking computer specialist/assassin Huck (his staggering back story, told in the excellent stand-alone episode “Seven Fifty-Two”, is one of the most emotionally harrowing hours of television you’ll likely see on network TV this year). Over at the White House, the President’s chief of staff Cyrus, played by Jeff Perry, presents a master class in frantic and comic Machiavellian political wrangling. Standing opposite and nearly equal to Washington is the soulful, smoldering performance of Tony Goldwyn as President Grant, as he tries to balance his political idealism and purity against the various forces aligned against him, even has he eternally debates whether he’s going to give it all up for the sake of his passion for Olivia.

Scandal would work fine – but sort of be a guilty pleasure at best – if all it did was rely on its shark-like forward momentum (and no show has moved as quickly and deftly forward, ever forward, with such abandon, since the early, giddy seasons of 24). But by grounding its soap opera/thriller tropes in characters who deepen and expand even as the complex machinations around them get more deeply ridiculous, Scandal elevates itself to – and I really do mean this – the highest echelon, and best exemplar, of the art of great major network TV, in all its best escapist and trashy, and thrilling and soapy, and whip-smart and emotionally moving glory.

If it isn’t quite reaching for the artistic and cinematic brass ring of the great prestige dramas over on cable, it’s because it simply doesn’t care and doesn’t have time. Scandal is going for something maybe even greater, a totality and completeness, a singularity of TV qua TV, that is almost nonexistent in today’s fragmented television landscape—and we would be fools to think it won’t achieve this.

The DVD release for the second season of Scandal is pretty light on extras (as seems to be the case for just about everything on DVD these days). A four minute recap of the early, pivotal event in Season Two is illuminating if only because it reveals that the show was teetering on the edge of not being a full season pick up (which seems crazy, given the show’s runaway success thereafter). An eight minute feature about the above mentioned episode “Seven Fifty-Two” illuminates angles on the episode that are probably missed on first viewing. A handful of deleted scenes and outtakes rounds out the platter.

RATING 9 / 10