Episodic television reviewing is all art and no science. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve changed my mind about something I’ve watched, I could underwrite the wine insurance policies on Olivia Pope’s white wool coats. I base what I write on first impression. This is important because television junkies tend to overestimate the frequency with which other people rewatch episodes. An episode gets one shot for a typical television viewer, so I watch once and fire off my impression of it to ensure I’m neither overpraising nor being overly critical based on a close reading most people will never do. I watched “The Lawn Chair” one time. I have no idea what grade to put on it. I even tested out a new technique I’d never employed. I plugged each letter into the box to see how they felt and none was right. So, with my apologies to those who care about such things, “The Lawn Chair” gets no grade. In a very real sense, I can’t call it.
It would be dishonest for me to pretend I have the ability to judge “The Lawn Chair” as an episode of Scandal, using the same sterile reasoning I typically apply. The day before the episode aired, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that former Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson would not be charged with civil rights violations in the fatal shooting of unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown. That was a muted conclusion because the shooting happened six months ago, and usually whatever charges are going to stem from a fatal shooting are going to come long before that much time has elapsed. The DOJ also released a report based on its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department, in which the agency found evidence of systematic civil rights violations against African-Americans. According to the report, Ferguson’s majority black population is being policed by a mostly white police force that essentially plunders the community, wringing revenue from citizens with bogus or trumped-up charges.
Scandal is not the first television show to mine the topic of unarmed black men dead as a result of police shootings. The Good Wife toyed with the same ideas in “The Debate,” a bumbling episode and a rare misstep for one of television’s most effective dramas. The interesting thing about “The Debate” is what came before it: a disclaimer informing the audience that the episode was written and filmed prior to grand jury acquittals of Wilson and the officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner. It’s a tonally weird and cowardly move, as if any upset someone experiences while watching the episode will be mitigated by knowing the show wasn’t supposed to air at such a sensitive time. The thing is, if you rush to production with a ripped-from-the-headlines story while a tragedy is unfolding, there’s no good timing, there is only bad timing and worse timing. Scandal’s timing is terrible, yet the episode came with no such disclaimer, and I found that offensive.
Yes, I would have been offended if the episode had some self-serving trigger warning appended to it, and yes, I am offended that it didn’t. The absence of a disclaimer feels wrong too because without it, it seems as if those involved with Scandal’s production and broadcast think “The Lawn Chair” is performing some kind of public service, applying a salve to a wound re-exposed to the elements. Television shows can have that kind of power, unfortunately, Scandal isn’t one of those shows. I genuinely admire the attempt, in the same way I admire an ant who thinks he can move a rubber tree plant. But the episode comes across as condescending wish fulfillment. In Scandal’s Washington-set Michael Brown facsimile, the responsible officer is charged, a federal investigation is initiated, and the dead child’s father gets to meet the president. That’s certainly a more satisfying outcome than in the real life case, but it’s also pretend. “The Lawn Chair” is not only fictional, it doesn’t feel emotionally true. It’s too much about Olivia’s heroism and her trauma, as if despite the zeitgeist, there has to be an explicit parallel to Olivia’s post-traumatic stress to fully earn the audience’s investment.
“The Lawn Chair” is impossible to grade because I can say with certainty that if it was not about this topic, I would have liked it. I know that because I liked it back when it was called “Mrs. Smith Goes To Washington.” Surprisingly, Scandal hasn’t featured more than a few real-time crises in its entire run. There’s an urgency that can’t be accomplished any other way. Even viewers who loathed the story of Olivia’s kidnapping have to concede it made the show feel different in a way that was hard to discern. It’s merely that Olivia’s actions function as a ticking-clock element, and those are irresistible by nature. “The Lawn Chair” works in much the same way: Olivia reports to the scene of a crime, summoned by the police to help control the optics around the police shooting of African-American kid Brandon Parker. When Brandon’s father, Clarence, arrives with a shotgun demanding to see his son’s killer, Olivia is caught between her rogue client and the grieving father. It’s classic Scandal, so maybe “The Lawn Chair” is not so bad to viewers with whom there are no principle considerations. I’m a big, bearded black dude who is frequently awkward around people and much more likely to use my smile to greet old friends than to disarm strangers, there’s only so much I want an exploration of this subject matter to feel like a romp.
I didn’t hate all of “The Lawn Chair,” and I don’t even think I hated most of it. Honestly, I’m not even sure if I hated the parts I hated. Even in the moments that worked, watching the episode feels like bad touch. Still, some of it works. Courtney B. Vance is a magnificent actor. His performance is deeply affecting. I also really liked the sparring match between Olivia and Marcus, the community activist. Marcus calls attention to the valid fact that she’s on the police force’s payroll. Stop being an ambulance chaser and an egomaniac, says Olivia Pope, whose life’s work is monetizing anguish and who very recently marketed her own body as a $2 billion executive timeshare. But anyway, writer Zahir McGhee nails their confrontation, with Marcus reminding Olivia she muscled Fitz into office on two occasions, and doesn’t have the moral authority to descend on a forgotten neighborhood and start questioning anyone’s motives. I even sort of liked how Olivia paralleled her temporary fear of death with the constant fear many live with daily, which was surprisingly graceful.
Here, though, is what I can’t do. I can’t do a lengthy Officer Jeffrey Newton monologue about respectability politics and his admission to planting a knife on Brandon in front of a room full of people as if he’s in the last 10 minutes of a Law & Order episode. The tragedy is that Newton gets to spend countless more years speechifying about sagging pants and babies having babies or whatever else he damn well pleases, because he’s still alive. Brandon can’t say another word because he’s dead. By the time the truth is revealed, we’ve already heard far more from Officer Newton than from Brandon, and I don’t want to hear anymore. Not mere days after the City of Cleveland blamed 12-year-old Tamir Rice for his own death. Again, as story, that works and serves an important function in the story, so maybe this is a good episode of Scandal. I’m not the guy to ask.
What I can say for certain is that following the depressing slog of Olivia’s kidnapping, I was desperately in need of a palate cleanser and “The Lawn Chair” was not that. Olivia Pope remains one of television’s most intriguing characters, and Scandal still seems to have some potential. But it would be nice to get back to the days when reacting to an episode of Scandal didn’t mean selecting the nature and degree of your exhaustion.
- Wait, so Artemis is the vice president?
- Olivia to Quinn: “Talk faster or say less.” Learn it, live it, love it.