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History of TV: Politics and Olivia Pope Define Shondaland Hit ‘Scandal’

January 21, 2021
3 min read time

I resisted watching Scandal when it originally aired. I’m not into politics. But the premise is screenwriting genius  not really surprising coming from its creator, acclaimed showrunner Shonda Rhimes. Scandal is about a former White House communications director and her team of lawyers, otherwise known as “gladiators in suits,” who form a crisis management firm in Washington, D.C. You can just picture their Beltway clientele. While it aired, I don’t doubt gossip surrounding the fictional politics on Scandal was on par with anything happening in real life. It was one of the most tweeted-about shows in 2015 (along with Game of Thrones, Empire and The Walking Dead ), and will likely always be talked about for its insane plot twists, snappy dialogue and unforgettable characters.


Masterful characterization

We know from the trailer that Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is the main character, but we hear about her long (by TV standards) before we ever see her — nearly a minute into the pilot.

“The way you stopped breathing when I said Olivia Pope, it’s a tell,” says gladiator/lawyer Harrison Wright (Columbus Short).

It’s a tell alright. It tells us everything we need to know about Olivia herself (and her reputation), about the new hire Wright is speaking to, Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes), who’s clearly in awe of Olivia; and lastly about the second onscreen character and his level of observation, Wright. In one line, three characters have been characterized, and the whole conversation that lasts less than the two-minute teaser sets up what we need to know for the pilot: Olivia believes in people, her people respect her, and strap in because these people talk as fast as their world moves around them. Then, and only then, after the title card, do we get to meet Olivia in the beautiful, intimidating flesh. Those two minutes are a masterclass in screenwriting.

On a whole, characters are beyond driven by their goals and desires in Scandal. Because they are incredibly fierce in their pursuit, the audience has a very clear understanding of what Olivia and her gladiators in suits want week after week — Olivia and her tumultuous relationship with President Grant, especially. Their every decision is explained and more conflict inherently created because of that blunt expression of passion present in every episode. It’s hard-hitting and at break-neck speeds — as is the actual dialogue, which while it sometimes makes you read between the lines, is every bit as powerful with everything that’s not being said plain as day in the characters’ actions.

The art of story engine and cliffhangers

The drama-conspiracy thriller first aired as a mid-season replacement back in 2012 and three years since its conclusion after a solid seven-year run, I’m still not sure I’m up for some of Scandal‘s storylines in light of our current climate. But when are political circumstances perfect? Which is why that landscape is (unfortunately) so rife with inspiration.

Within minutes of audience surrogate Quinn’s arrival at the OPA office, the pilot case and A story is introduced in the form of accused murderer Conservative Republican Sullivan St. James arriving in bloodied clothes. They take the case and Olivia lays out the rules for Quinn, St. James, and us.

“We are the judge and jury,” she says of her clients.

“Then I warn them, I always warn them…” No lies. We immediately understand Olivia’s moral values: she’ll work her ass off, as will her team, for you, and though that may include some questionable actions there has to be a level of trust.

Scandal also used its primetime slot to its advantage, structuring stories around cliffhangers, knowing that viewers at the time couldn’t just stream the next episode. The show masterfully injected each episode with plenty of other surprises as well.

In its fourth season, Scandal officially became part of ABC’s “Thank God It’s Thursday” lineup along with Grey’s Anatomy and Shondaland’s new hit that year, How to Get Away with Murder. Reminiscent of the network’s TGIF branding, TGIT was older, sexier, and featured way more plot twists.

Powerhouse players

Scandal is quintessential Shonda Rhimes. Relatable yet powerful female characters, incredibly high stakes, and breathtaking moments. And an audience that keeps coming back for more Shonda shows. The woman’s passion for her work is evident on screen; there’s a reason Netflix signed that deal with her.

Writer-producer Rhimes was originally inspired for the character of Olivia Pope by real-life Washington D.C. crisis manager Judy Smith, who worked as deputy press secretary in the White House for George H. W. Bush. While Smith never had an affair with the president, she did go on to open her own crisis management firm, Smith & Company. Smith also acted as technical advisor and co-executive producer on Scandal, which served its authenticity.

Lastly, certainly not least, there was actress-director-producer Kerry Washington, who brought Olivia Pope to such vivid life. Washington received two Golden Globe® and two Emmy® noms for the role, one she inhabited with such captivating grace it’s undoubtedly one of the most memorable among her small and big screen turns.

In retrospect

Scandal relied heavily on run-of-the-mill politicians’ dirty secrets as a story engine before wandering into election rigging, secret identities, and presidential assassination attempts. The show proves that if you have the right combination of inspiration and character motivation, the storyline possibilities are endless — and their impact timeless. At its heart, Scandal was about the emotion behind the action, and that’s what kept it on audience radars for so long. When we feel connected to a character’s internal motivations, we keep coming back. I know I will to binge the rest of Scandal.

Stream all seven seasons on Netflix. 

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