Scandal is in a junior-year slump. Last season, ABC’s political soap was one of the best series on television, the writers expertly shoving characters together and wrenching them apart for maximum delicious conflict. Showrunner Shonda Rhimes achieved a kind of baroque storytelling that was grotesquely convoluted, yet stunning to behold. The season didn’t culminate in a single and-then-the-earth-stopped-spinning revelation, but four or five. (Spoilers ahead.) The president had the election rigged for him – and didn’t know it. When he discovered the truth, the POTUS killed one of the people who got him his gig in retaliation: a dying Supreme Court justice. The First Lady threatened to expose her Republican husband’s interracial affair on live TV and use the sympathy vote to get herself elected to office. As a pre-emptive measure, the president’s gay chief of staff counter-threatened to “out” the FLOTUS as a lesbian. Oh, and he also used his assassin connections to order his baby-crazy husband dead.
Confused? Here’s the shorthand version of the show: Kerry Washington stars as Olivia Pope, a DC “fixer” who makes problems go away for the rich and powerful. Like most TV protagonists, she’s very good at her job and very bad at everything else, especially her love life. Her soul mate (Tony Goldwyn) – or the guy she’s currently trying to convince herself isn’t her soul mate – is the most powerful man in the world, a stiff, boring, unlovable Mitt Romney-type with George Dubya Bush’s daddy issues. (She’s Olivia, he’s Fitz, and they’re Olitz, if you’re into that kind of thing.) Fitz’s wife Mellie (Bellamy Young), a ball of rage with big hair and manicured nails, is every political wife who gave up her own career for her husband’s ambitions, was thanked for her sacrifice with an extramarital affair or seven, and stands by her man because she believes acting “the good wife” will ultimately get her somewhere.
Scandal is, in other words, a wonderfully, deliriously paranoid show whose chief strength lies in the ultra-high stakes of national politics. (Sorry, Olitz shippers.)
Sadly, that’s been missing this year. While the second season ran on the adrenaline from methodically revealing the ignoble origins of Fitz’s ill-gotten presidency, the show seems reluctant to enter the political battleground so early this year. Instead, it’s focusing on several of the non-political players: Olivia’s co-workers, her possibly evil father (Joe Morton), and her other ex (Scott Foley), the most boring character on the show.
But Scandal has never been a democratic show; its characters were not created equal. The ones that demand the most attention and interest are the ones who are the most powerful. This is partly because they have more to lose and more to fight back with, but it’s mostly because the show functions as a kind of alternate-universe political tabloid. The show’s radical cynicism makes it feel just plausible enough that, were the president to have an affair with his media consultant (Olivia), the two – or at least the president’s chief of staff and she – would concoct a plan to pin the affair on a complete innocent so they could hide the real affair.
That kind of credible melodrama is what makes Lisa Kudrow’s Josie Marcus such a welcome addition to the show. Josie is a Democratic congresswoman from Montana who’s running against an establishment candidate in the primary and probably against Fitz later this year. Since Olivia and Fitz are currently on the outs, she’s decided to join Team Josie, with the show spinning a delectable fantasy of what it might be like to have a charismatic, openly feminist candidate with blue-collar roots run for the presidency. Because this is Scandal, Josie is quickly saddled with a trashy past: her much-younger sister is actually the daughter she had as a teenager – a premise ripped from some less-than-credible headlines in 2011 about Sarah Palin and her youngest son. Josie’s also a reminder of the accomplished, instinctive, raw-but-ready female leader Palin appeared to be for all of two minutes before the illusion fell apart.
In last week’s episode, “Icarus,” Josie made fangirls out of many viewers by pointing out the latent sexism of the journalists who interview and comment about her, even as she was manipulated by Olivia and her co-workers. It was classic Scandal, giving us something to cheer for while exposing the corrupt, crumbling truth within. Josie alone is staying the course of Scandal’s mission; the rest of the show is MIA.