Reviews

Watching 'Scandal' Is Like Riding a Runaway Train -- Hang on Tight!

In its ridiculously entertaining second season, Scandal comes into its own as one of television’s great thrill rides, a runaway train of twisty, soapy plotting that never stops.


Scandal: The Complete Second Season

Cast: Kerry Washington, Tony Goldwyn, Jeff Perry, Columbus Short, Darby Stanchfield, Katie Lowes, Guillermo Diaz, Bellamy Young
Release date: 2013-09-03
Amazon

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.

9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image