The legacy ‘Scandal’ leaves behind
On Thursday, April 19, ABC’s Scandal aired its final episode. And no matter how you may feel about the ending, Scandal is going down in history as a show that changed television. Literally. And for that, Shonda Rhimes et al. deserve all of our love, respect, and praise.
How Scandal broke barriers
Expectations weren’t high for Scandal when it first premiered back in 2012. The ratings weren’t great either. But Scandal proved that strong writing, interesting characters, and distinctive storytelling can make a ratings juggernaut, even if a series doesn’t launch with a monstrous viewership. Scandal showed the world that if you build something for the people, word of mouth can be more powerful than any ad campaign.
In many respects, the TV landscape in 2012 wasn’t that different than how it is now. The top-rated TV programs for the 2011-12 season included American Idol, The Voice, Modern Family, and The Big Bang Theory. Cries for lack of diversity in entertainment were far from new, and shows like HBO’s Girls (also debuting that year) highlighted the issue. And still, Scandal‘s first season was only 7 episodes. But the platform this show built turned the tide for diversity on television.
From the supporting cast up to the leads, Scandal was as diverse as shows come. Kerry Washington was the first Black woman to lead a network drama since 1974. And as seasons and cast members changed (yeah, we’re talking about you Columbus Short), the diversity continued, representing individuals of different races, genders, and sexual identities.
Pope herself was a devout feminist. She had relationships (romantic, sexual, professional, or otherwise) with whomever she wanted. Though notorious for fixing the lives of high-powered politicians and businesspeople, she consistently fought for the underprivileged as well, sometimes to her own detriment. She lived life on her terms, drank expensive red wine nearly every night and not ever once felt guilty about it.
Before Viola Davis’s Annalise Keating removed her wig and eyelashes on How To Get Away WIth Murder, Olivia Pope let her natural curls run wild while sunning herself on a beach with Jake Ballard (played by Scott Foley).
How Scandal changed us
The impact Scandal had was far greater than what could be bound in 1-hour installments. Before Scandal, Shonda Rhimes was still a relatively unknown name in Hollywood. Sure, she’d created Grey’s Anatomy and its spin-off Private Practice, but her work wasn’t known for being particularly groundbreaking. With Scandal, Rhimes showed her ingenuity. She turned a winter replacement show into one of the country’s top shows within 2 seasons. She managed to grow its audience through a combination of having a uniquely compelling show and more or less inventing the very concept of livetweeting. And now, for all of her efforts, Rhimes has inked a major deal over at Netflix.
But perhaps more importantly, Scandal pushed us to look at politics differently. This fictional show took a hard look at the personal dynamics behind the politicians. It humanized large political figures and made us face the reality of how personal relationships can have national and somehow international impacts. While this led to a hornet’s nest of bad actors having more power and control than they ever should have, this also was a gateway for showing political possibilities. These included the first openly gay vice president, Cyrus Beene (played by Jeff Perry), the first woman president, Mellie Grant (played by Bellamy Young), and eventually who we can only assume would be the first Black woman president, Olivia Pope (Washington) judging by the oil canvas portrait that closed out the show.
Scandal was able to tell a sensational and at times outlandish story yet still imagine a better world than the one we live in. It was representative of humanity, as no one is all good or all bad. But with every character, Scandal showed that redemption is possible for anyone, as long as they want it bad enough. That is a powerful message our world sorely needs.
Scandal‘s “perfect” ending
As the series came to a close, I expected Olivia Pope to shut things down in some colorful fashion. But instead, it was Rowan aka “Papa Pope” (played by Joe Morton) who delivered the most memorable moment of the hour. With one last monologue testifying in front of Congress, he finally put an end to B613 (the shadowy, black ops organization responsible for virtually every bad thing in the world), got nearly the entire cast off the hook for their years of misdeeds, and illuminated both the sheer power of Blackness and lengths white people will go to protect white supremacy.
And while that initially felt wrong, I came to realize that this was perhaps Shonda Rhimes’s most skillful moment of the entire series.
From the beginning to the end, Scandal was always about subverting traditional power dynamics. It centered a Black woman as the most powerful, most competent, most resilient, most responsible, and most admired person in its fictional America. She held the affections of a sitting United States President for 7 seasons and never placed more importance in that relationship than she did in herself. And in this scene, while it is Rowan speaking the words, it is all about Olivia. She, like her father, had the ultimate power of pulling all the strings and harnessing all of the power, yet doing it all from behind the curtain. Or to paraphrase Papa Pope himself, everyone on this series was only able to wield their power because Olivia’s feminist power allowed them to. I could think of worse ways to go out.
So Scandal, here’s to you. For changing television as we know it, keeping our Thursdays interesting, and making us all want to be a gladiator in a suit, wear a white hat and stand in the sun. Thank you.
Photo credit: ABC
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