Television After 9/11: An Ongoing Series
Part 3A: Shonda Rhimes, Scandal and the Cynicism of Powerful People
Well before the terrorist attacks of 2001, cynicism in institutions had begun to permeate the national psyche. Part of this was due to the rise of cable news and part of did involve several television series of the 1990s. The most successful and arguably the one with the greatest roots in this was, of course, The X-Files.
It is doubtful a series like The X-Files could truly have been as successful in any era. After the end of the Cold War, a national paranoia began to feed into the American psyche and The X-Files gave voice to that. The central idea of the series was not so much about the search for alien life or the supernatural, but rather the idea that our institutions, particularly our government was lying to us, and could never be trusted. The list of series inspired indirectly by The X-Files could fill a volume on its own, and I’m going to deal with a quite a few in this series.
After 9/11, this cynicism and utter mistrust in our institutions began to play out in just about every level of television. As I mentioned in an unrelated article, some of this began play out in a new kind of TV that has become practically the go-to move for so many series in the past decade. This has followed a transition from ‘Bad People doing Bad Things’ to ‘Powerful People Doing Bad Things’ In that sense, so many of Shonda Rhimes’ series in the past decade played to this idea.
As regular readers of my column know, I have a vaunted dislike of most things Shondaland and it’s understandable that those same readers might well think this is yet another opportunity to dump on her work. But the fact is, it really is hard to imagine quite a bit of Shondaland — particularly Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, which will be the focus of this article — could really exist at any other time post 9–11. So much of what happened in that era is reflected in both series — the former dealing primarily with political power and terrorism; the latter with criminal justice — that’s its really hard to imagine either existed pre 9/11 or even in the decade prior. And while I do respect Rhimes was trying to do, the fact remains it was done in such a poor way that I think it may have done more damage to television — particularly network television — than it could have ever done any good. So, I’ll try to take a closer look — mainly in general terms — what each show did that was horribly wrong and why the ideas that somehow they were groundbreaking are a complete lie.
Let’s start with Scandal. One of the biggest problems with Scandal may have been the fundamental concept that Olivia Pope was somehow a groundbreaking character. In the sense, she was — an African-American woman at the center of a broadcast drama was something that hadn’t happened in decades on network television, and frankly still doesn’t happen nearly enough. And I can understand why millions would cotton to here — there is a lot to be said for a perfectly coifed, gorgeous woman walking around powerful men mostly and calling back about situations, saying simply: “It’s handled.” Kerry Washington has always been a superb actress, and I get why people everywhere swooned over her.
The thing is, almost exactly contemporaneously with the series came the development of a series on Showtime that dealt with someone who basically did the exact same thing that Olivia Pope did: Ray Donovan. Now, I’m not going to advocate for one series over the other: as those who’ve read this column, I actually found both equally distasteful and equally unwatchable. But for all that, there is no difference from the kind of work Ray did than the kind Olivia did. And if I had to choose between them, I kind of prefer Ray. Not because he was more likable (on the contrary, his behavior in private was more repugnant than Olivia’s) but because, at his core, Ray was more honest about what he did.
Olivia Pope went through almost the entire run of the series, convinced that by hiding the truth from the public about what powerful people did, she was performing a service not only to her clients but the public because ‘they couldn’t handle it’. Ray never bought into that all: he was never dazzled by Hollywood (or New York politics, which is where the last two seasons were) or any of the people he worked for. It was a job, plain and simple, and he was good at it. There’s something fundamentally more acceptable about that than any of the nonsense that Olivia told her friends and herself. Ray was a monster (more so than Olivia, because he actually got his hands dirty in a way she never did) but he knew he was.
In retrospect, I think that Scandal itself had more in common with The X-Files then I was willing to acknowledge: it dealt with the efforts of people within the government to hide the truth from the world about the evils that went on. But Scandal was far more cynical about what it did, and cared far less about the people it was supposedly hiding the truth from. For all the cynicism and darkness of The X-Files, there’s always something optimistic at its core. Mulder and Scully were never going to succeed at bringing the truth about the government’s plots against America to light, and they would end up paying extremely dear for it (each of them would suffer physically and emotional scars that no one on Scandal could compare with) but that never stopped them from trying. Olivia Pope, by contrast, is just another version of those nameless assassins who worked for the Syndicate. I’m sure that at their core, many of them believed that what they were doing was for the greater good (some actually said as much at times) but it didn’t change the fact that they were deliberately engaging in a process to ‘deceive, inveigle and obfuscate. And that’s basically all Olivia and her ‘gladiators’ ever did.
What actually makes this somehow even worse is that the villains on Scandal didn’t even go through the motions of saying what they were doing was for the greater good. One of the most memorable characters in television history was The X-Files Cigarette-Smoking Man, brilliantly betrayed by William B. Davis. In one of the series greatest moments early in Season 2, Mulder finally confronts the Smoking Man in his apartment. The series always managed to play the card of the banality of evil, and they did so just as clearly here. The Smoking Man is a barely furnished apartment, a full ashtray beside him, watching an old black and white movie. Mulder enters the apartment and puts a gun to his face. The Smoking Man makes vaguely menacing terms at first, but then says something rather sad: “Look at me. No family. A little power. I’m in the game because I believe what I’m doing is right…If people knew what I knew, it would all fall apart.” And for all the evils the Smoking Man was responsible during the series run, there always seemed to be something sad about him. We would eventually learn that the Syndicate engaged in their conspiracy with alien colonists because they were trying to stave off an invasion. The way did it was horrible and misguided — Mulder himself would once refer to it as ‘victory meant the absence of defeat’ — but you tell at their core they believed they were do something right for somebody.
Now compare to this to Rowan Pope, aka ‘Command’ the head of B613, the Syndicate of Scandal. (There are a lot of parallels between the characters played by Joe Morton and Davis, respectively, but I don’t think they’re entirely pertinent here.) Rowan had all the power that the Smoking Man did; he ordered murders to keep the powerful in place, mainly so he could outmaneuver them. But for all the words about ‘preserving the republic’ (a phrase seriously overused), you very quickly understood that Rowan had no respect for anybody, not the public in general, not the people in power, not even his own daughter. Rowan was essentially a cartoon villain, who had no respect for Olivia but just wanted to control everything she did, and wouldn’t even bother to save her life when she was abducted. For all the horrible things the Smoking Man did, there were at least occasional signs that he had a heart: he cared very deeply for Mulder’s mother, and even had her life after she suffered what would surely have been a fatal stroke, and went out of his way to try and find a way for his estranged son to know and respect him. The Smoking Man believed in something and some people. Throughout the series, people with far less scruples than Mulder did were sticking guns in Rowan’s face and no one ever pulled a trigger. I never understood why.
And there was another key element that The X-Files and Scandal had: revelation, or rather the lack of consequences for it. In The X-Files case, this was entirely creator Chris Carter’s fault. Every season, we’d get a mytharc episode that supposedly was going to change the series forever, and not only did that never happen, each revelation would completely contradict much of what we learned before. By the time the series was barely a third of the way through its nine-season run, you could barely make sense of what Mulder and Scully were trying to expose about aliens, and it hardly matter because only they would learn it, and the world around them basically never changed.
Scandal did just as much revelation, albeit at a faster pace. Throughout the second season it particular, it seemed that Rhimes and her cohorts were revealing secrets about the series with every new episode and at the very least, it did change the outside world. There were, however, two major problems with this. The first was the fact that if you pile on a revelation at the end of every episode, even the most devoted viewer will become numb to it. It was one thing to have an assassination, and then in the next episode reveal the assassin, and then in the next episode reveal the election the President had won was rigged. But eventually it started to become a revelation for revelation’s sake, and it’s hard to really have room for much else.
The second, far bigger problem, was that when you have this many earth-shaking events, you run out of new ideas. When you have an election being stolen and then an assassination, then an investigation to that all before Season 2 is even half over, then it really becomes a question of how you follow it up. And Rhimes approach was basically… to keep telling the same story over and over again. In Season 3, the overriding mission of the series was to bring down B613 — they did in the penultimate episode, and that it was revived in the last one. They did the exact same plot in Season 4, which ended with Rowan in prison…, and by the early stages of Season 5, B613 was fully operational again and Rowan was back in charge. It really makes you question why so many people were following this series in the first place: I know many people turn to TV for the familiar, but this was ludicrous.
And for all the flaws of The X-Files mytharc, the writers very quickly turned their attention to the Monster of the Week which very quickly became more ambitious and imaginative than the mytharc ever was. It would be brilliant stylistically, it could be scary and shocking, and most wonderfully, it could often be hysterically funny. And with resident geniuses Vince Gilligan and Darin Morgan at the helm, they would have the capacity to look inward and poke fun at the series stodginess and clichés in a way that featured some of the greatest moments in TV history.
Scandal’s equivalent — Olivia and her gladiators helping powerful officials get out of messes — became pale retreads very quickly. Because so many of them followed the same formula and far more often with more people dying, you really wondered if they were little more than janitors, cleaning up richer people’s messes. And for all their supposed abilities to solve problems, they weren’t really changing anything. This was actually made clear in what was widely considered the series highpoint: ’The Lawn Chair’ where Olivia is called in by the D.C. police to essentially stop a race riot. It was fundamentally a powerful episode, but it exposed the truth that when it comes to institutional racism, there is some things Olivia Pope is powerless to handle.
And that’s the dirty little secret about Scandal — it told us nothing new about stories; it just had minorities — African-Americans, women, gays and lesbians — fundamentally being the ones doing all the evil things and fixing them up. Now I understand why that would be appealing to certain audiences. But that doesn’t make it revolutionary or groundbreaking. It just makes it a different variation on a familiar theme. And a lot of that paled in comparison with what we would in Shondaland’s most direct follow-up How to Get Away With Murder.