Before last month’s winter finale three weeks ago tonight, “gladiators” trooped to their televisions with a glass of red wine in one hand and Twitter in the other to watch and comment on “Scandal.” That’s ABC Television’s hour-long guilty-pleasure on Thursday nights that chronicles the hijinx of high-powered Washington fixer Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington and based on real-life Judy Smith) and her on-again-off-again married paramour President Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant (R-Calif.).
Series creator Shonda Rhimes gives us a latter-day “Dynasty” where money, power and sex are on display in scene after dramatic scene. But some of the situations “Liv,” as Pope is called, and the other characters get into in and around Washington are so over-the-top I feel compelled to leaven the fantasy with some truth.
The White House grounds
First, let’s talk about the White House grounds. In the first season, you saw Pope arriving at the executive mansion through a guard shack in Lafayette Park set directly in front of the gate at the North Lawn. There is no such thing. Also, that tall building housing the offices of Pope and Associates that appears to loom ominously near the White House? That doesn’t exist.
I’ll chalk both up to liberal use of dramatic license. But I wanted to suspend that license over the final scene in the finale on Dec. 12. That was when Pope’s mother concluded a call with her by tossing the cell phone in a trash can directly in front of the White House gate. As if! The nearest trash can is in front of the Hay-Adams Hotel, clear on the other side of Lafayette Park.
James and Cyrus
One of the groundbreaking things about “Scandal” is that a black woman (Pope) and a white man (the president) are romantically involved. And we’re not talking in a shy and retiring way either, as the “Vermont is for lovers” episode made quite clear. More on that episode in a second.
The relationship that doesn’t get nearly as much attention but is equally vital to the show is that of Cyrus Beene and his husband James Novak. Beene is the manipulative and ethically challenged White House chief of staff who has so far targeted Novak for assassination to keep him from testifying in a case damaging to the president and pimped him out to the closeted husband of the ultra-conservative vice president. Novak, an ambitious journalist who has covered the White House for television and print, put his own ethics on hold to lie on the stand in that case that almost got him killed and to sleep with the vice president’s husband once he realized he was being pimped out.
Anyway, I give you all that detail to put an ultimatum made by Novak in the finale into context. Beene is so desperate to keep Novak from leaving him that he accedes to Novak’s demand that he be named press secretary. I mean, come ON! While there are plenty of journalist-politico couplings in this town, you will never ever see a reporter covering the White House married to a member of the White House staff. A perfect example of this is Jay Carney and Claire Shipman. Both have covered the White House. He for Time magazine. She for NBC News. But when Carney was named White House press secretary in 2011, Shipman, then and now a senior national correspondent for ABC News, was barred from reporting on stories related to the White House.
The “Vermont” episode was particularly noteworthy. Not just for its rather graphic (for network television) romantic reunion between the president and Pope. Not just for how Fitz could build a secret house for Liv without anyone ever finding out about it. But also for how she got to and from Vermont in the first place: by presidential helicopter.
“Gladiators” across America swooned at seeing Pope alight from Marine One with only her handbag. And no doubt a certain segment of them said, “Go ’head, gurl!” when she said the next morning upon hearing the thwap-thwap of the approaching chopper, “That’s my ride.” My Twitter feed will attest to the fact that I was one of them. But I know better. Ain’t no way in hell that could ever happen in real life.
But so what? Who cares? “Scandal” is a fun-filled diversion that magnifies the power and absurdity of this town without taking itself too seriously (unlike far too many folks in this town). Pity new episodes won’t hit the airwaves until Feb. 27.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj