Into each life a little dreck must fall.
Or, in the case of Scandal, a torrent, a waterfall, unless I exercise extreme caution and keep it out of the house entirely, which means keeping my trigger finger from typing “Netflix.com” on my laptop’s browser, and then clicking on the Scandal logo close to the word “RESUME,” because I stopped watching somewhere in the middle of Season 4, or was it 5? In the last few episodes, Olivia Pope, Washington DC’s foremost crisis manager, played by the gorgeous Kerry Washington, was kidnapped and put into what seemed to be a Middle Eastern jail, and was full of hope that her dreamboat lover, U.S. President Fitzgerald Grant, played by Tony Goldwyn, grandson of Sam, would manage to get her out. It wasn’t Fitz who got her sprung from the miserable place – which turned out to be a warehouse in Pennsylvania – but her own trademark fearlessness and ingenuity. She was headed home for a steamy reunion with Fitz and a return to her regular crisis-packed life, when I decided I had had enough, this second binge around.
I had stayed awake just long enough to see the tender scene between Fitz and his wife, Mellie, who, by this late date in the series, is resigned to her husband’s love of Olivia, or Liv, as intimates call her. “The CIA says that Liv should be back within twenty-four hours,” Fitz reports to Mellie. “That’s good,” she says with mock kindness. “We always sleep better when she’s lying between us.”
A few minutes later, Mellie tells Fitz that what she really wants is to run for President. “I want to run the world,” she declares – and who can blame her, after years of being pushed around, of humiliating rejection and jealousy, giving up her law career for Fitz’s career, and having her and Fitz’s teenage son murdered in one of the show’s more bizarre plot twists. The murder was ordered by Olivia’s father, who is head of the shadow intelligence agency called B613 that plays a large role in Scandal’s goings on – to keep the plot as sinister and as full of torture and dramatic reversals as possible.
Olivia is a resolutely single woman with a law degree and a large, co-ed staff of zany and troubled crime solvers known as “gladiators,” several sleep-over lovers beyond Fitz, and a winning metabolism that allows her to survive almost entirely on popcorn and red wine. In a nice gender twist, the only character in the show who yearns for a baby is the gay husband of Cyrus Beene, the President’s Chief of Staff. The scandals on the show veer between those involving Olivia’s clients – senators and other power brokers – and those belonging to Olivia herself, the result of her affair with the Prez and her mysterious mom and dad. One minute, the show is a dark, ripped-from-the-headlines thriller and the next it’s a saucy rom-com, where the Fitz and Olivia are cavorting in a Vermont hideaway that he had built for her. Like War and Peace – the novel, not the miniseries – there is something for everyone here, and if you can’t stand the bizarrely frequent torture scenes, you can easily hold down the fast forward button, just as you can skip the hundreds of pages about war in Tolstoy’s novel and go right back to the peacefulness of romance and society.
By the time I called it quits this second time around, I believe I had watched some thirteen or fourteen episodes in four days, which, in case this is news, induces a binge watching hangover and a few gigabytes of guilt at all that wasted time, even if it occurred between midnight and three am. Since then I’ve wondered: Will I ever turn it on again one of these nights, about 10 or 11 o'clock, when I’m done working and I’m too wound up to sleep but too tired to read? Do I dare click the forward-pointing arrow again and tumble back into the lightning-paced mix of mystery-thriller-romance-ad absurdum set largely in the White House West Wing and family quarters, assorted torture chambers, and Olivia’s conference room, where we witness her high-tech gladiators solving that episode’s presenting scandal? Unless I am vigilant, the show could easily appear on the screen of my laptop, wrapped in sugar, drenched in salt, making the unmistakable crunch of a Dorito chip being bitten into – flavors and sounds so addictive that I truly can’t start watching unless I know I have hours – no, entire nights – to fritter away.
Since it’s human nature to blame those closest to us for our bad behavior, I will lay part of the blame on my grown stepdaughter, who, staying over in our apartment several years ago, would curl up in the corner of the couch with her iPad nestled in her lap and a big smile on her face. “What could possibly account for the way you’re grinning?” I once asked.
“A TV show about a woman in Washington who fixes crises. She’s having an affair with the President. Lots of fun. Very trashy.”
One night, I investigated on my own laptop, and I count that initial batch of shows – a season or two, consumed many nights in a row from about 11pm to 2am – as my first Scandal binge. At the time, we didn’t have a flat screen TV to hook up the computer to, and I had already watched a few of the popular series on my laptop, alone, as my husband has no taste for these shows. He’d rather watch operas with headphones on his laptop than soap operas – or these lengthy series shows – anywhere.
Such was our collective obliviousness to TV shows that I only paid attention to Downton Abbey about three years after it started, when I watched three seasons in two weeks – and then quit without another thought. I watched Mad Men in a desultory fashion, binging alone on seasons out of sequence years after they’d first run, because I couldn’t remember what I had already seen. Yet by the last half dozen episodes, I was hooked, and I cajoled my husband, who had seen a few episodes, to watch the grand finale with me. He professed interest, and I was happy to have his company. In the language of marital negotiations, I suppose he was happy to do it because it made me happy – though I know he would have balked if I’d wanted him to watch episode after episode. There is a limit to what you’ll do for a spouse’s happiness.
I explain all of this to lay the rest of the blame for my odd, out-of-sequence TV-watching habits squarely on him, with whom I ordinarily share every other sort of cultural experience. We are happy togetherat concerts, plays, films, art exhibits, and lectures, but his refusal to watch TV shows with me has turned the TV-series-craze into my own private guilty pleasure, a late-night, tawdry romance between me and my laptop, rather than a shared aesthetic experience. Hence, my lack of discipline about the shows, my ambivalence, my shame, perhaps even my being susceptible to the twaddle that is Scandal. If he watched some of the better shows with me – this line of reasoning goes – I might gravitate toward those when I’m tired late at night instead of falling into the irresistible slime of Scandal.
Another line of reasoning points to what might be some genuine merit in Scandal, which I noticed during my second binge. The show was created and is written by one of the most powerful women in TV, Shonda Rhimes. She’s 46 years old, grew up in Chicago with educator parents, and graduated from Dartmouth and USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where she studied screenwriting. One of her early jobs was as an intern at Denzel Washington’s production company, and she was soon writing screenplays and working with Brittany Spears and Julie Andrews on wildly successful box office hits – before creating and becoming head writer for Grey’s Anatomy, which debuted in 2005, when Rhimes was 35 years old. She based Scandal’s Olivia on real life press aide, Judy Smith, who worked in Bush 41’s White House before becoming a DC crisis manager, with clients who included Monica Lewinsky and Wesley Snipes. She’s now co-executive producer of Scandal with Rhimes. I would be remiss not to mention that Rhimes, Smith and Scandal star Kerry Washington are African-American.
Might Rhimes have wanted to create a show with an African-American female lead, and Judy Smith’s story was the perfect fit? Or might Smith’s story have been on Rhimes’ radar for other reasons? The result, in any case, is a wildly successful network show that’s been on the air since 2012 – parallel with Obama’s second term – and done its part to normalize interracial sexuality on TV, which, for most of its history, has been a major taboo. Very little is said directly about Olivia’s race or that of her parents, but her mantra – familiar to women and minorities – is “I have to work twice as hard to get half as much,” which she learned from her father.
Beyond the mantra and the interracial visuals, the sensibility that informs the storylines and the dialogue is one that understands power and powerlessness, brute force and linguistic jujitsu, and the unending abuse and diminishment that women endure at the hands of men, whether it’s one of Olivia’s staffers, whom she rescued from an abusive marriage, or a client involved in a case of sexual harassment. When First Lady Mellie has had enough, she says to her husband, “I would have had something, been something, done something. My life would have meant something, if it wasn’t for you.” And when Olivia has had enough from the same man, she says, “I am not a toy you can play with when you’re bored or lonely or horny. I am not the girl the guy gets at the end of the movie. I am not a fantasy. You want me, earn me.” The show often feels like a chaotic mash-up of absurd plots and hyperbolic twists, but it also offers up hard truths nicely packaged about life itself, from the White House to your house: love, sex, family, power, justice, jealousy, and the other great equalizers, disappointment and loneliness.
I’ve come to realize that something more personal holds my interest in Scandal as well: My own past in Washington DC. When I worked there in the early 1980s, as a writer and lobbyist for a civil rights organization, I had a dalliance or two not entirely kosher but which never became known, and certainly never became a scandal. There were no elected officials involved; I was too much of a bohemian to find men who worked for the government in any capacity in any way appealing. My taste ran decidedly toward outsiders and malcontents, which is to say reporters and low-paid lawyers working for scruffy, do-gooder nonprofits. Knowledge not power was my aphrodisiac – and people who wanted to press against the system, not cheerlead for it.
While my job intersected somewhat with official Washington, it was an alien, virtually theatrical place to me. I cared deeply about the issues I worked on, but I saw myself there marking time until I could quit my job and write my first novel. Yet when the Monica Lewinsky story broke in 1998, sixteen years after that job had ended and six years after I’d left Washington, I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering if, in my past life, I’d had anything in common with Monica. Had I been as indiscreet and boy crazy with my illicit beaux as she had been with hers? Clearly not. But might it have happened, had the stars been aligned slightly differently? What I really wanted to be assured of – by whom, I don’t know – is that I would never have gotten myself into the kind of trouble she’d gotten into. That I’d have had the good sense not to do what she did: pursue the President as though he were a high school crush, pine away for him, reveal myself to be so publicly gaga and vulnerable.
I wanted to be sure I could say, “Monica, ce n'est pas moi!” But I dreaded the feeling that the other might have been true, had only one or two things been different when I’d been young and needy – or just young and adventurous. I had dodged that imaginary bullet, in any case. And if I managed to reassure myself of anything it was that being a writer, even an aspiring writer, I had in me, in Hemingway’s words, a built-in bullshit detector, which had kept me at a safe distance from those who wanted to dwell in the corridors of power. Perhaps that had been my inoculation against Monica-style self-destruction: avoiding the places where scandal takes root and begs for sunlight.
But enough about me.
As I poked around online doing some fact-checking for this essay, I was bombarded with websites that summarized every episode of Scandal I had missed – including all of Season 5, in which Fitz and Mellie divorce, Fitz and Olivia break up, Mellie becomes a senator and – you’ll never guess – soon thereafter runs for President, aiming to be the country’s first woman president. In the most racially charged scene I’ve yet witnessed in the show, she insists that Olivia run her campaign. Face to face with her ex-husband’s ex-lover, Mellie delivers this in a nasty sing-song: “I was lo-ost but now I’m found. I was bly-ind, but now I see-eee. You are going to make me president of the United States.”
Sure, I could tell you how that turns out for Mellie – it’s the stuff of Season 6, which premiered in January 2017 – but let’s just say that the results of the election take everyone – the entire blinking world – by surprise. At the time of this writing, the rest is yet to be revealed.