May 17, 2013



The people on SCANDAL just can’t talk fast enough.  There’s so much invective they need to get out of their mouths, so much self-justification and passionate, furious strategizing, so much spin, that the words don’t just flow, they flood–a tsunami of verbiage.  When a rare quiet scene arrives, two people so angry or done with each other that there’s nothing left to say, it feels odd, like stepping on dry land after a long sea voyage.  The sound of their own voices is what keeps these characters afloat.

If you do a Google search of “ABC Scandal insane,” you get 107 million results.  So enough has probably been written about the sheer audacity of Shonda Rhimes’s outrageous plotting, with its stolen election and its President who committed the premeditated murder of a Supreme Court Justice (to cover up the stolen election).  The really noteworthy thing about this remarkable season–Scandal is now the highest-rated 10PM show on any network, any night, except for Sunday Night Football–is that the plots all make sense.  It’s not just that they fit together; they have a comprehensive world-view.  The plan for the season had originally been announced as being, essentially, two mini-seasons, the first concerned with the election fraud, and the second with the search for a government mole.  In fact, it was all one grand plot, a triumph of operatic complication where the mole, the fraud, and even the murders from Season 1 all tied together.

Scandal has become the zeitgeist show of the moment, the first to air on a broadcast network in perhaps a decade, and it’s not just because it’s “crazy.”  I’d suggest that it’s taken the cynicism about politics that every poll says has become endemic in America, and somehow made it fun.  Other political dramas–most obviously The West Wing–enshrine idealism and the American spirit.  Scandal‘s great subject is ruthless pragmatism, the relentless pursuit of power for its own sake.  It’s what we all think really goes on in Washington, with the moral outrage removed–a celebration of victory, no matter the cost.  In tonight’s episode, the Democrat whom Fitz had beaten for the White House tried to blackmail him into being on the ticket for his second term, and no one batted an eye.  (They just discovered he had no real leverage and ignored him.)

Although he’s not part of the show’s ultimate power couple of fixer extraordinary Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), the show’s signature character may be White House Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry, giving a career-making performance).  Cyrus, an openly gay Republican, doesn’t care about any principle but one:  winning.  He’ll manipulate the President, First Lady Mellie (Bellamy Young)–even (and perhaps particularly) his own husband, ambitious but hapless reporter James Novak (Dan Bucatinsky).  Tonight he ripped into all three of them, and the Vice President to boot (although Fitz had the best threat of all on a show with an African-American creator and star, by telling Mellie that if she didn’t walk away quietly from her marriage and let him be with Olivia, he’d spread the word that she was a racist).  Loyalty doesn’t stop Cyrus, a heart attack can’t slow him down.  Looked at in any realistic way, he’s not just reprehensible, he may actually be a maniac.  But he’s incredibly likable, filled with self-awareness about his own self-destructive nature, and he’s the voice of the show.  He gets the best speeches and he usually prevails–tonight, even over Olivia and Fitz, as he succeeded in breaking them up by telling each one the very worst secret about the other.

Every episode of Scandal plays like the season finale of any other drama, so the question coming into this week was how could Rhimes (who wrote the hour personally, directed by Tom Verica) top herself?  In typically cynical Scandal fashion, it turned out that when it seemed like David Rosen (Joshua Malina) was betraying Olivia and the rest of her gladiators to bring them and the Grant administration down by cooperating with the mole, actually his long con was to trap the mole, who was Billy Chambers (Matt Lescher), the Vice-President’s former Chief of Staff and last season’s murderer, and use the recorded conversation as capital to get a bigger job and a public Presidential commendation.  It wouldn’t be a surprise at all next season to see him back together with gladiator Abby (Darby Stanchfield)–they could never trust each other again, but trust is an overrated commodity on Scandal.  The only one on the show with any real conscience seems to be Huck (Guillermo Diaz), the former CIA killer who was unable to torture the truth out of Billy Chambers tonight–and was agonized to see that his protege, former fresh-faced Quinn (Kate Lowes), was more than willing to take over the bloody task, and proud to see it through.

And of course, Rhimes saved the best for last, a double-whammy cliffhanger that had Olivia’s affair with Fitz go public after she thought she’d successfully kept it quiet, and then the revelation that Rowan (Joe Morton), the shadowy head of the CIA group that previously employed Huck and several other series murderers–and who seemingly tried to have Olivia herself killed earlier in the episode–is her own father.  Because Shonda Rhimes.  Because Scandal.

It should be noted that apart from its astonishing take on the world, Scandal is sensationally well done.  The cast, led by the spectacular Washington, handles its very stylized demands with uniform precision, the writing manages to make over-the-top vitriol laugh-out-loud funny, and the episodes fly by, only the commercial breaks reminding viewers that this is an hour of television and not 20 minutes.

After this finale, Scandal may only get bigger next season (pity poor Parenthood, always thrown into the fire by NBC, and staid Elementary).  Rhimes has found a way to make the ugliest parts of the American dream into the most gripping, jaw-dropping, watchable entertainment around.  Olivia Pope would be proud.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."