“I’m the scandal” said Olivia Pope to her office full of self-styled “gladiators.”
Her conclusion, then, was that she was the center of the swirl of chaos and wretched behavior that writer/creator Shonda Rhimes routinely packs into each episode of “Scandal” on Thursday nights. And so Olivia (Kerry Washington) ended last week’s season finale on a private plane with Jake (Scott Foley) on her way to a new life across the ocean arranged by her unspeakably corrupt father (Joe Morton burning up the set weekly).
I seem to have gone the first half of my life encountering the first name “Olivia” only twice. It was, as far as I knew for decades, only the name of Olivia Newton-John and Mark Twain’s beloved and eminently proper wife, the one whom he lovingly teased on the exceedingly rare occasion when he heard her curse by saying “my dear, you have the words but not the music.”
Then, successively, TV offered us no less than three wildly charismatic Olivias: Olivia Soprano (Buffalo’s Nancy Marchand), the nightmare mother of Tony Soprano; Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), the deeply soulful cop on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”; and then Olivia Pope (Washington), the virtuosic Washington “fixer” based originally on a very real “crisis manager” named Judy Smith until the show decided to become a weekly soap opera grenade exploding in American living rooms.
To no one’s surprise, Thursday’s season finale of “Scandal,” began with a real explosion in a Washington church where the president was supposed to speak until he was warned off. The episode ended with Olivia and Jake on that Lear jet on the way to God-knows-where, a destination certain to last no more than two episodes when the show returns to ABC next season.
Between the big boom and the final lurch into “time to get out of Dodge” territory, the following things happened: the President (Tony Goldwyn) found out that when he first ran for governor of California, his father (Barry Bostwick) raped his wife (Bellamy Young); Olivia’s No. 1 computer hacker, “cleaner” and torturer Huck (Guillermo Diaz) was shown where in suburbia lives the estranged family who mistakenly believe he’s dead; Olivia’s father is back in charge of evil spy operations B613 after making a deal with the president, imprisoning Olivia’s super-evil mother (Khandi Alexander) and knocking off the president’s teenage son with a special vial of instantly fatal meningitis germs that B613 keeps around for special occasions.
I’m not even going to tell you about the two members of Olivia Pope’s team of “gladiators” caught en flagrante delicto having the kind of sex that HBO’s “Game of Thrones” first specialized in. (A fact for HBO watchers to consider at some length: President Obama has declared himself a fan of “Game of Thrones” and also an occasional watcher of “Scandal.” Feel free to spend the next five minutes running variations on “HUH?”)
You couldn’t expect such wisdom on the narrative methods of “Scandal” creator Rhimes but there it was on Thursday’s Jimmy Kimmel’s “Behind the Scandalabra” special in Kimmel’s usual time slot. Between bits of Grade D-minus comedy purporting to be a Spanish language version of “Escandalo,” Kimmel interviewed the Rhimes on her show.
He had, believe it or not, one rather acute and nicely phrased question. Why is it, Jimmy wanted to know, that she insists that each show pack a couple of seasons worth of plot explosions into each episode?
Rhimes’ answer was both interesting and revealing. She wants “Scandal” to be a show to which each viewer feels he or she must pay rapt attention, lest they miss something important. She didn’t want viewers to think they could be folding laundry while it’s on without worrying about letting something slip past them.
“Scandal,” then, is both a state-of-the-art exhibit of modern television programming anxiety and a device for commandeering the American living room completely.
Rhimes wants nothing less than her viewers’ total attention. Not even enough divided concentration to fold socks, pajamas and underwear will be brooked while her soap opera fantasia of Washington maniacs plays out its insane and potential fatal games of bumper cars.
Rhimes has become a rarity in our time to the point of singularity: she is a TV writer/creator/show runner who almost is as much a celebrity as her stars. And her method of doing so is to meet the 21st century’s various different media pathologies head on. “Scandal” is a TV show virtually designed for TV rather than to be miniaturized. excerpted and co-opted for smart phones, while at the same time maximizing post-broadcast social media water cooler time for each show.
If it seems as if her show has been stark staring nuts all this time, it hasn’t been nuts at all. There is more method to her madness than there is in, perhaps, any other TV show.
And that’s why “Shondalizing” in apparent imitation the story of prime time’s other Olivia – Olivia Benson of “Law and Order: SVU” – is the big scandal of our current TV season.
When last we left “Law and Order: SVU,” Olivia Benson was not only competing with the other Olivia on TV for the title of most prodigious consumer of red wine, she had fictionally admitted on New York TV that she had tortured and beaten a handcuffed unarmed man.
Yes, we out here in “SVU” land knew that the evil guy was perhaps the major villain in the history of the show, but that’s still an absurd amount of melodramatic weight for one fictional cop to have to carry while still on the job.
“Law and Order: SVU” has, then, now joined “Scandal” among the ranks of TV shows that have almost no discernible relationship with plausible reality whatosever despite their origins in reality.
That, I submit, is a long and deeply dispiriting way down for a show that spun off from TV’s greatest reality-based fictional franchise, a “Law and Order” kingdom of shows always accompanied by disclaimers of realistic intent.
We’ll see on Wednesday’s “Law and Order: SVU” how they intend to make this right. Frankly, I doubt they can.
I truly hate to say this but simply as a matter of acceptable fiction on TV in prime time, I think the tale of Olivia Benson in prime time is over. A shark has been jumped.
It’s too bad Olivia Benson doesn’t have a daddy who can put her on a private plane to Europe with a playmate.
“Scandal’s” Olivia Pope will make an awaited return. Olivia Benson, in my melancholy view, has been “Shondalized” on one of the last TV shows that should have permitted it.
She’s now hopelessly damaged goods.