'Scandal': Fifty Shades of Black and White

If 'The West Wing' tried to portray the U.S. presidency as a complex world peopled by generally decent people, 'Scandal’ portrays ax-grinders.

The Roman poet Horace is credited with coining the expressions for the two contrasting ways of opening a narrative. According to him ‏(in his Ars Poetica, 13 B.C.E.‏) you can tell the story ab ovo ‏(literally, “from the egg,” i.e. from the beginning, incidentally implying that it all started with the egg, and not with the chicken‏), or you can start the story in medias res ‏(literally “in the midst of things,” which in the case of an egg would be the yolk‏), and first hook the reader ‏(or the viewer or listener‏), and then fill him in about the details.

Be that as it may, in the media in general ‏(incidentally, “medias” is not the plural of “media,” which is − in the Latin − a plural in itself, of “medium”‏) or on TV in particular, the only way I get acquainted with movies or series on TV is “in medias res.” As I lay there zapping ‏(in my favorite viewing position, supine in bed, the remote in my right hand‏) I sample the channels, and once in a while I stumble into the midst of things in a narrative that makes me stay longer, and then check how it all began, and enquire how it is all going to end, if it ever does.

The most recent TV egg I’ve tried to crack is “Scandal,” an American political serial thriller, currently in its third season. When I say “currently,” you have to bear in mind that I refer to the “currently” prevalent on Israeli TV, which started to screen the third season of “Scandal” on January 7 on HOT 3. The American viewers had already finished viewing the third season − the 30th episode, entitled “A Door Marked Exit,” was screened on ABC on December 12, 2013 − and for them “the truth is out there.”

For those of you who don’t yet know what it’s all about, well, it’s about a scandal ‏(from the Greek skandalon, in the figurative sense “snare for an enemy, cause of moral stumbling,” OED‏) in the highest reaches of American politics. It’s all about Olivia Pope, a “fixer” in Washington, D.C., and her team of associates, who refer to themselves as “gladiators,” meaning ‏(as it turns out‏) that they are willing − and even eager − to take up lost causes and fight for them, even if it means incurring the wrath of the powers that be ‏(which in this case are the White House and the various warring factions in it, and all the overt and covert agencies run by − or running − the U.S. administration‏).

There is nothing new for the American ‏(or the Israeli‏) TV viewer in a series that has the White House as one of its main playing fields. It is merely eight years since the end of the run of “The West Wing” ‏(created by Aaron Sorkin, broadcast on NBC over seven seasons, from 1999 to 2006, and with continuous reruns all over the world, Israel included‏). But if “The West Wing” presented the inside story of the American presidency in an attempt to portray it as a complex world peopled by generally decent people trying to make the most of the predicaments that face them, “Scandal” is the direct opposite: Each of its characters has an ax to grind, and each has some secret whetstone to grind it on.

Jed Bartlet of “The West Wing” was a very-well-meaning professor of history trying to square the devious ways of government with the highest moral principles; Fitzgerald ‏(“Fitz”‏) Grant of “Scandal” cheated his way into the White House ‏(the elections were rigged for him by his team‏), and is having an off-and-on affair with Pope, who was part of his election team before going private.

Everybody's a villain

If the world of “The West Wing” was mostly gray, the world of “Scandal” is decidedly black and white: all its characters are villains, in a way. Even if they mean well, they are forced to play dirty, because the other side ‏(or sides; one never knows how many sides there are to any issue‏) will stoop to anything to get their way. And while the current American president is a black Democrat, and Bartlet was a white Democrat, Grant of “Scandal” is a white Republican, while Pope is both black and a woman, and yet she can hold her own against... well, “against whom” is the question.

By the beginning of the third season − you have had the chance to watch episode 2 this past week − Fitz is still adamant that he will be able to divorce his scheming wife and marry Olivia, even if it means not running for a second term and retiring to a love nest in Vermont ‏(episode 8 of the third season is entitled “Vermont is for lovers, too”‏). Olivia’s estranged father keeps popping up in the most unexpected moments of her hectic life, and there is a black ops agency, code-named B613 ‏(it has nothing to do with the 613 − taryag − mitzvot, commandments of the Jewish faith, in case you wondered‏), which trains killers and can make people disappear if need be. It is Olivia’s dad, who tells her − and the viewers − right at the beginning of season three, that what she is up against is not “the White House,” or any identifiable agency, but rather a disembodied concept of “power,” centered presumably in Washington, and stronger than any individual − whether he or she is morally right or wrong − who tries to rise against it.

As with all other TV series, it is not only about the protagonists: Olivia ‏(the actress Kerry Washington‏) holds center screen ‏(she is already a fashion trendsetter‏) and, if need be, can make a mysterious phone call that will turn right into wrong or vice versa. But the hooked viewer ‏(me, that is‏) is equally interested in the fate of the members of her team: the former B613 agent Huck, Harrison Wright, a lawyer who works with her, and the two female investigators, Abby Whelan and Quinn Perkins. All of them are heavily indebted to Pope. They help Olivia confront the “evil” White House, as impersonated by Grant’s chief of staff, Cyrus Beene − a friend turned foe, or the other way around if need be − or shield her against the machinations of Assistant District Attorney David Rosen, played by Joshua Malina, who was also Will Bailey, C.J.’s replacement as Director of Communications by the end of “The West Wing.”

For those of you following “Scandal” already, I hope I didn’t bore you stiff. For those of you who have not heard of it or bothered to watch it to begin with, I hope you will find it as entertaining as I did ‏(and do‏), and I tried hard not to spoil for you the fun of being surprised by an unexpected turn of events. And do not be afraid of getting hooked to a particular time in a week when the next episode is on: You can get all of the third season on YouTube, and season 1 and 2 were already released on DVD sets.

And anyway, the whole idea of viewing a TV series weekly, on TV, when it is on, is very much a thing of the past. According to a study released by Netflix, the online service that streams movies and TV shows to more than 40 million subscribers in 41 countries ‏(not Israel, although I’m told there is a way to access it from here‏), about 61 percent of viewers in the U.S. tend to “binge-watch” − to watch a whole TV series season in a short period of condensed watching, with 25 percent of them polishing off a season within one weekend, preferably with another person.

Which may very well be, but not for me. Will Olivia Pope find her man and will she ever be happy? Tune in Tuesday, 21.30, HOT 3, Scandal time.

AP