Monday, November 19, 2012

Scandal: Season 2 (ABC, Thursdays 9 pm)

Winning Women

One of the many problems with Season One of Scandal was the constant reminder of the awesomeness of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). Even before we were formally introduced to her, her henchman Harrison (Columbus Short) was working overtime to convince Quinn (Katie Lowes) and us of her many legendary feats. When Pope finally emerged on screen in a smart white coat—flashing multiple languages at us briefly—she demanded everyone to take the deals she designed for them, no questions asked. In one instance she handed over the Russian ambassador’s kidnapped baby to him, sternly warned him to not mention it to the FBI because they’re “tired of me”. In another, she gave a young decorated war hero the “it gets better” speech…all this in the first episode of the series.

Olivia Pope fatigue thus set in early with Scandal (that and her ludicrous, “my gut tells me all I need to know”) but there’s more: Olivia runs a crisis-management team (Pope & Associates) and before that she worked in the White House as its Communications Director. She’s black, pretty, slim, wealthy and—the icing of it all—is the beloved of the US President. Even in modern-day America this is quite the stretch and the first five episodes of the series buckled under the weight of all this fabulousness. The show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy)-- sensing the piling improbabilities no doubt—has had to scale back and retooled Pope more as a vulnerable, strong archetype and not some cold, stony deity in order to even get to this season.

It has started to pay off because Rhimes had to raise the stakes for the other women in the show as well. Not only is this plausible but it adds tension and allows for personal, emerging storylines. Moving beyond an all-knowing Olivia is one thing but it’ll be another thing to establish terra firma on the remarkable set of complicated women around her. This is then, the great promise Season Two strives to deliver: Olivia and her contemporaries all wanting to win and have everything at any cost.
So far, those many wins have collectively been against the opposite sex but three episodes into this new season, it is clear that some vicious girl-on-girl action will go down soon. Olivia may be used to grilling individuals over their questionable actions but now she’s the one being scrutinized. Her unquestioned grip on things is endangered not only at her firm by the judgmental Abby (Darby Stanchfield) but also—and more direly—the wife of the president, Mellie (Bellamy Young). The show has placed many objects between Olivia and Mellie’s inevitable showdown but it helps that the show’s writing no longer pits its action against what it feels we the viewer must be thinking in our heads while we watch. Now, Rhimes allows us to connect the dots and anticipate what is to come at a pace that doesn’t feel artificial.

While we wait patiently, Scandal has scaled down on inconsequential outer case loads to focus on complicated, inner ones. Abby’s obsession with Pope as a brand vis-à-vis the individual may be moving glacially but hints at some luscious drama. Quinn’s secret identity, less interesting, gets the lion-share for now but it’s a big gamble especially as how Pope seems to be in on it from the start.

This, in a very real way, makes Olivia the least interesting character on the show…well, next to Quinn anyway. Season 2 hasn’t put forth any new angle to contradict this and that remains the sticking point of Scandal: how, utterly un-scandalous its lead character is. Nothing screams unique or controversial just generic achievement, the type that excels in the blue-collar world. Even the main male lead, the president Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) is largely unremarkable. What keeps both going though is when they’re together the chemistry is obvious and charming to watch. Pope in isolation is singular but when cast within the context of her cases, her story begins to unthaw. “The Other Woman” (episode two) particularly hit home when we witnessed two ‘other women’ story-lines unfold in one.

At one point in this intriguing episode, Olivia comes face to face with Mellie, unguarded and with no one else in the way. It is a terrifying moment for both but the extent to which Mellie perfectly navigates it is the real terror. For all the awesomeness we’ve been instructed to have for Olivia from the start of Scandal, in these three seconds, we feel true pity for her and the hopeless situation she’s in. If you’re as much a political junkie as I am then don’t be surprised if Condoleezza Rice filters in and out of your sub-consciousness at precisely this moment.

RATING: 6/10