Love it: ‘Scandal’ is escapist absurdity in a city of real-life scandals

October 4, 2013

“Start a kill file on Olivia Pope.”

Hooray!

I’m not cheering because Republican President Fitz Grant’s mistress — D.C.’s best global crisis manager — has been outed as his lover and ordered rubbed out, professionally if not physically, by the ruthless White House chief of staff.

No, I’m cheering because season three of “Scandal” has returned to ABC after a summer break, in all it’s fast-talking, backstabbing, law-breaking, lying, cheating, morally reprehensible, soap-operatic glory. Not a moment too soon, methinks, if only for Olivia’s ongoing kick-butt refusal to be pushed around and beaten down, not always in a good way.

"Scandal" stars Kerry Washington ("Ray") as Olivia Pope. (ABC/Danny Feld)
“Scandal” stars Kerry Washington (“Ray”) as Olivia Pope. (ABC/Danny Feld)

Instead, she and her company of “gladiators” organize their most important damage control campaign: saving La Pope. Though it’s customary to include the names of actors playing each character, i.e. Olivia (Kerry Washington) I’d rather not clutter things up with a second set of names, so if you care, consult the show’s Web site, where you can also view past episodes.

The season opener aired on one of Washington’s more surreal days. The federal government remained closed, and a dental hygienist from Connecticut was killed by police after driving wildly from the White House to the Capitol, raising fears of a terrorist attack or perhaps a repeat of last month’s Navy Yard massacre.

But in the bare-knuckled Washington of show creator Shonda Rhimes, a shutdown and a lockdown seemed almost normal compared with the implausibly delicious “Scandal” sub-plots. Pope’s father, Rowan, an autocratic CIA special ops guy (redundant, no?) spirits her past the media scrum outside her apartment to a private hangar, hoping to goad her into exile while insisting Fitz will never divorce his smart, conniving wife, Mellie. He sneers at his estranged daughter for craving a position as banal as first lady when his brainy, beautiful girl should be aiming for chief of staff or secretary of state.

“Do you have to be so mediocre?” he demands.

No, she just has to be true to her sometimes tough, sometimes vulnerable, besotted and heartbroken self.

What makes this series so addictive — like a hot batch of garlic fries or a bowl of chocolate covered coffee beans — is its complete escapist absurdity. We are no longer shocked by true scandals: the pro-life Congressman who pressures a mistress to have an abortion and wins reelection anyway; the chronic serial adulterer who runs for president as a family-values candidate, or the anti-gay-marriage senator who changes his tune when one of his kids comes out of the closet.

It doesn’t seem like such a great leap for such once-laughable story lines as a sitting president killing a Supreme Court justice before she can tell the feds he stole the election with rigged voting machines, or the routine kidnapping and torture of inconvenient persons by official and rogue operatives amid revelations of our own government spying on its citizens and friendly foreign leaders.

“Scandal” is a matter of taste, of course. You couldn’t pay me to watch “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad,” but I can’t get enough of Olivia Pope’s passion and fashion, outrageous but possibly effective PR gambits, her inarguable savvy and dumb-to-delusional decisions concerning matters of the heart. In television, as in life, there is no accounting for taste.

(She The People guest contributor Soraya Nadia McDonald tells us why she hates “Scandal.”)

And so, in the course of an hour we watch Pope and her friends fix her own scandal:

All of Olivia’s clients — governors, ambassadors, corporate titans — have fired the firm upon learning of the affair in a leak actually arranged by Fitz himself using a Secret Service agent to tip off a TV reporter. Why? Because he wanted to force a divorce, and liberate his lover from the shameful shadows.

In a desperate move, Olivia — who continues to make dazzling white the new sartorial black — convenes a bizarre strategy session in the White House bunker with Mellie and Fitz. They hatch a plan that would have the first couple, in a hand-holding Rose Garden news conference, confirming the affair. Pope promises to publicly apologize a day later to the aggrieved wife, who reluctantly agrees that the lovers can admit to having two sexual liaisons. The first lady then retorts that she might have been able to accept her husband’s philandering, if, instead of a major romance “all we had was a blue dress and a cigar.”

But even in Pope-land, best-laid plans go awry. One of her gladiators passes some out-of-context video and e-mails to Cyrus that falsely suggest the White House communications director is the real presidential paramour. The entire media corps falls fast for that crock, while the oleaginous Cyrus comforts the sobbing aide with assurances of support because, after all, “we are family.” (The rumble you don’t hear is a large bus under which she’s just been thrown).

By the show’s close, Rowan has shown Cyrus an “oh my God” classified report about an Iranian incident involving Fitz and his old military buddy, Jake Ballard (Olivia’s protector and one-time lover), and our heroine lands a new client.

Standing before a gazillion reporters, she announces that the aforementioned communications director Absolutely. Did. Not. Have. Sex. With. The. President.  All that’s missing is a wagging Clinton-esque finger.

Olivia Pope is one resilient crisis manager. Or as she told her father when he urged her to bolt the country because she was running out of options, “I am never out of options.”

Lines like that have made me a “Scandal” junkie.

You go, Olivia.

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com writer and columnist specializing in politics, culture and design. She has also written for the New York Times, Town & Country, Washingtonian and More, and is at work on a memoir. Follow her @AnnieGroer.
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