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Scandal: both an OMG Soap and a hoity-toity Opera

For 2013’s best of TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. Between now and December 20, we’ll be unveiling those shows, one per day, culminating in our picks for the top three shows of the year. Don’t forget to vote for your favorites of the year in our readers’ poll.

Molly Eichel: Okay, here’s the deal: You know Barack Obama’s anger translator Luther on Key & Peele? That’s pretty much how I feel right now, except I’m more teenage fangirl who speaks in exclamation points and OMG proclamations while Ryan gives the restrained, well thought-out argument. I just want to scream in a way that should roughly translate into: “I did not think that I would ever see Khandi Alexander eat her own flesh, but here we are.”

Ryan McGee: I am well versed in the ways of Luther, Molly. And while I definitely did not foresee imagery more apt for The Walking Dead creeping into this modern-day melodrama, it somehow strangely fits nonetheless. Why? Because it, like so much else on this show, transcends the limits of mere soap opera and has evolved into straightforward opera. Power, lust, and love are leitmotifs deployed by the writers to weave a modern, melodramatic score. Scandal is a modern opera for our time.


If Scandal functions like an opera, it’s because the show isn’t concerned with what people think about it. Rather, it is concerned with how its viewers feel about it. Shonda Rhimes isn’t writing a television show so much as composing an opera that reflects the way people experience the world, rather than the way they live in it. The two are very different, and the exploration of that disconnect is what makes the show powerful and unique. The libretto isn’t as important as the score, and few shows in 2013 rang notes as piercing, profane, and profound as Scandal did.


ME: Scandal bleeds emotion to the point where I, as a viewer, feel it, too. It doesn’t just play on the emotions of the audience; it taps directly into them, to the point that rational, analytical thought isn’t fun anymore. That’s weird for a critic to say, but the greatness of Scandal is how it makes me get out of my critically thinking head and ride the visceral wave that Rhimes and her team set in motion.

Above all else, Scandal is really fucking fun, and right now, it’s at that perfect sweet spot between brilliant and batshit, where I don’t care about how ludicrous First Lady Mellie being raped by her father-in-law is because oh-my-god-it’s-Mellie-and-I-just-love-that-diabolical-bitch-so-much.


RM: Right. Instead of walking the line between real and ridiculous, Scandal ignores it completely to demonstrate just how false that binary is. Nothing in the world of this show is ever over the top, since it has intentionally forged its dramatic stakes from raw, human emotion over plot mechanics. What’s “real” and what’s “ridiculous” is in the eye of the beholder. One person sees the president of the United States kill a standing member of the Supreme Court. Another sees a brokenhearted man attacking a person who has killed his sense of self. A third sees two self-centered bastards who are long past forgiveness before this act occurs. All three viewers are correct. Scandal is deliberately open to interpretation, melding the language of the “adult” cable drama with the previously discussed soapiness.

I can see why that makes discussion for some (such as you, it sounds like) moot: Most could insert a GIF of Kermit The Frog flailing his arms into a post and call that an apt response to any particular episode. That Scandal can support both a deep dive into its themes and an instantaneous celebration of its excesses seems like a feature, not a bug.


ME: Exactly. By making her audience act with a Kermit-arms level of emotions, Rhimes completely accomplishes her goal. And I’m totally playing into that. Let’s also discuss how the likability index for these characters is so low that I’m cool with the idea of rooting for a group of people who murder others on a consistent basis. Olivia stole the election? Meh. At least she didn’t kill an unsuspecting security guard in the worst fake date of all time. Conventional knowledge says this balancing act can’t last forever and that soon things will devolve into Crazy Town where that critical part of my brain clicks on and says, “Hey, something’s not right here.” Emotional forces will be overcome by plotting. But so far, I’m cool with being one of those nonanalytic fans that sends group text messages containing only shocked-face emojis during commercial breaks.

RM: We put far too high a price on a show’s longevity as a marker of success, because a show’s ability to stay on the air for a long period of time often has no relation to its actual quality. I’m not sure why having something that’s awesome for a short period of time isn’t preferable to a middling show that lasts five years. But that’s the risk Scandal is taking: By taking everything so high, so quickly, it’s risking failure at every step of the way. It’s part YOLO and part WTF. Eventually, that mixture will combust. Buy why worry about that future inevitability when the present is so powerful?


That’s not just a way to think about the show as a viewer, but to help explain the motivations of the show’s characters: They understand the dangers that await, and thus strive to make every present moment count. This is a show that traffics in the familiar beats of epic emotional drama, yet takes place in a world stripped of all romanticism. There’s sound and fury, but only second-hand melody carried over from another, distant era. Olivia and President Fitzgerald Grant play the parts of star-crossed lovers, but it’s not clear how much of that is based on their actual chemistry versus their desire to take part in a mutually destructive relationship. The line between actual desire and staged psychodrama is constantly blurred whenever one enters the other’s orbit. It’s unclear if they crave love or punishment from the other. For all Olivia knows, Fitz killed her mother. But he also built her a house in Vermont. One seemingly cancels the other out in the moral universe of Scandal. The moral quandary that defines Olivia and Fitz in Scandal has an epic and universal ring to it: They know what they should want, but aren’t able to either grasp it, or run away from it.

What initially seemed like a case-of-the-week procedural has used flashbacks and the introduction of new characters to reveal a narrative mosaic so vast that there seems almost no limit to its depth and breadth. Learning about why certain characters are so broken in the present via glimpses into their past doesn’t provide catharsis. Rather, it offers up a deeper appreciation for the modern-day morass in which they are trapped. I grew up watching Merrie Melodies. In Scandal, we have the melodramatic melodies of the modern era.


ME: Let’s go back to your initial thesis about Scandal’s operatic leanings, Ryan. My main experience with opera comes from the scene in Pretty Woman where Richard Gere gives Julia Roberts that crazy-fancy necklace (that Olivia would clearly eschew as tacky). If you don’t love opera on first viewing, he tells her, then it will never be a part of your soul. He watches closely as she bawls during “La Traviata.” It’s part of her soul. Yet, when asked about her opinion of the piece that lady-like veneer vanishes. “It was so good, I almost peed my pants!” everyone’s favorite hooker with a heart of gold replies.

There’s a certain resonance to that scene in Scandal. You’re overcome with emotion even if you don’t know what’s really going on, and then you kind of devolve into your own base being, reduced to excited gasps and punctuation-driven responses. It’s all part of the game Rhimes is playing: Scandal isn’t a soap for precisely the reasons Ryan says it isn’t, because emotion is more integral to its core than plot—which, to be fair, is also rather important; without changing stakes, emotion becomes stagnant. But more importantly, that emotion never rings false, like it often can in a soap. We’ve been so trained to love these terrible people despite the times they murdered Supreme Court justices or set their husbands up to cheat on them with the closeted husband of the vice president. And those characters will have my finger on the exclamation point until Scandal can’t pull it off anymore.


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