New to 'Scandal?' Here's What You Need to Know to Enjoy Season 5

The show returns for its fifth season this week, offering more outrageous thrills and kills in Washington’s corridors of power.

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In the working life of every TV columnist, there comes a moment when he (or she) realizes that, more than being a free agent who can choose what to write about (and when), he is actually a captive of that “thing”: writing about the thing you’ve just seen on the screen, or that thing the public can view in the coming weeks.

That in itself is not such a bad thing, since you’re never at a loss for things to write about. That said, one must admit that in the life of TVdom – possibly like in life itself – there’s a distinct sense of events somehow repeating themselves, in a slightly different form, eliciting that feeling of “déjà vu” (everything sounds better in French – and Yiddish).

I’m not going to discuss the ramifications of such feelings on one’s psyche in general – after all, I’m only a TV columnist. But I’d like to add, as I’ve already slipped into French once, that in Joseph Heller’s masterpiece “Catch-22,” the protagonist, Yossarian, has two somewhat similar states of mind for events that come his way: “Jamais vu” (the sense that the familiar is being encountered for the first time); and – my personal favorite, which seems to cover most things that happen – “presque vu” (almost, but not quite, seeing something).

That happens when you have to write about yet another season of a popular, returning TV series. That one gives you, in baseball legend Yogi Berra’s version of the original, a feeling of “déjà vu all over again.” A series is initially written about when it first airs. Then it gets written about again when it was decided to renew it, or not. Then you cover the first episode of season two – and so on, ad nauseam. Just like the series producers, who must strive to keep telling the same story but refresh it in a way that will ensure its perpetuity, the TV columnist has to find a way to write about a new season without regurgitating the column about it a season (or two, or 12) ago.

The case in point is the new season – the fifth – of “Scandal,” a political thriller with a strong-willed, vulnerable yet invincible young black woman at its center, created and produced by Shonda Rhimes for ABC, as part of their Thursday prime-time schedule, all of it created by Rhimes. Her first success, “Grey’s Anatomy,” just started its 12th season in the United States, while her most recent creation, “How to Get Away with Murder,” returned to U.S. screens last night (September 24) for its second season. (Her next series, “The Catch,” launches early next year.)

Unlike Yes, which makes a point of scheduling “hot” series so they air in Israel simultaneously with the U.S. premiere (we are a global village, n’est pas?), HOT doesn’t insist on serving it so hot and allows for a three-day hiatus: the fifth season’s first episode airs in Israel this Sunday, on HOT 3.

“Scandal” is a sort of combination of “The West Wing” and “House of Cards”: The everyday life of the U.S. administration, heavily spiced with all shades of conspiracy at every possible level. Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) is the name of our damsel who is never in distress but is often distressed. She was previously involved in the election process – problematic, as it turned out – of President Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant (Tony Goldwyn). She was also his media consultant, but now runs her own crisis-management firm in Washington. She’s aided by a band of committed coworkers who dub themselves “Gladiators” – meaning they’re ready to enter the arena and fight for the cause until the end – which they hope will be bitter for the other side. And naturally, since they’ve taken it on, the cause is always a good one.

As this is Washington, any crisis they manage forces them, sooner or later, to cross paths with the powers-that-be in the White House. And everyone – really everyone, even the good guys, even in a cause of a good cause – plays very, very dirty.

Much-needed elucidation

The fact it’s the fifth season forces me to confront the “anti-spoiler terrorists” head-on. With a new series, one has to be careful not to divulge some facts or turns of events, as these series thrive on anticipation, surprises and cliff-hangers. When a series settles into its run, though, a plot point that would have constituted a spoiler in season one now becomes part of the premise.

Spoiler alert!!! Hereon, I intend to mention some facts that were surprising four years ago, but are now common knowledge to those interested in the series. Mentioning them will be a spoiler only for those who intend to binge on all four previous seasons, whereas for those planning to join the series now, writing about it will provide much-needed elucidation.

So, here goes: Behind the scenes in Washington, and behind the scenes of the series itself, lurks a covert black-ops agency, B613, whose agents are ready and willing to torture and kill any target – which may precipitate a crisis – on the word of “Command.” And Command, it soon emerged, is none other than Rowan (Joe Morton), Olivia’s own father. (Her mother was a terrorist, but that’s a whole other story.)

Gradually, it becomes clear to all that B613 is an entity that no one – not even a commander-in-chief – really controls, bar Command himself. And apart from their lethal and ruthless efficiency, which they occasionally employ in the service of the administration, they mostly play their own dirty and bloody game of survival. By now, the efforts of Olivia, Fitz and the administration to bring B613 down are all part of the plot. Joshua Malina, who was one of the main characters in “The West Wing,” plays Attorney General David Rosen, who failed, by the end of season four, to bring Command to justice yet again.

As season five opens, Command is still on the scene, but the focus is going to be – judging by the trailer – personal relations between Olivia and Fitz (unrequited love and unconsummated – as yet – passion; the trailer augurs a change), and a crisis that Olivia cannot manage (she was and is one of its many causes) in the married life of Fitz and his first lady, Mellie (Bellamy Young), who is now a U.S. senator. The trailer – spoiler alert! – shows Fitz serving her with divorce papers.

If events in the series sometimes make you question their plausibility, bear in mind that Judy Smith serves as a coproducer on the series and she was a press aide in the Bush administration (and Fitz is a Republican). Also, the press notes say that Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama and George W. Bush are all avid viewers. If they accept the premise and watch it – although a divorce has never happened in the West Wing – why shouldn’t you?