In 'Scandal,' Parallels Between Fiction and Reality Are Too Close for Comfort

How can a fictional TV political thriller series compete with a guy like Trump, who sometimes looks and behaves like a character from a satirical TV series?

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Darby Stanchfield (left) and Kerry Washinton in 'Scandal.'
Darby Stanchfield (left) and Kerry Washinton in 'Scandal.'Credit: Courtesy

American TV series live (and die) according to two sets of values and two parallel timelines. One of them is the premise of the series itself, which sets the tone and dictates the tempo, set, atmosphere and milieu, a.k.a. genre. Police and law procedurals will be in grim gray and bloody gore, take place on mean streets, in police stations, courtrooms and jail cells; medical procedurals will be in white, blue and green, and take place in hospitals, operating rooms and morgues (see police procedurals).

On top of that, the series and their show-runners, writers and characters must bear in mind that out there, behind the TV screen and surrounding the viewers, there is a real world with which they have to sort of liaise. To be plausible, the series have to conform, as it were, to the reality they seek to portray or represent. Even the quirkiest cop or doc has somehow to fit into a “circumstantial box” that we accept as a valid reflection of the world we live in. Historical series are an exception, since the TV viewers usually do not have a “real” world against which to gauge their plausibility.

There is one type of series, the political thriller, that runs a much more gruelling race with reality than the police, law and medical procedurals. In political series, the parallel lines of fictional TV plots and real-life events are very often much too close for comfort.

Such is the case of “Scandal,” which has just ended its fifth season, on May 12 in the U.S. on ABC, and on May 15 in Israel on HOT 3. The title of the series alludes mainly to the stuff Olivia Pope’s personal and professional life is made of. Since Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “The Catch”) was spinning the yarn, this gradually became clear.

Pope, played by Kerry Washington, runs a crisis management firm in Washington, D.C., saving those who deserve it (in her eyes and those of her associates) from the effects and after-effects of various scandals that threaten their lives and/or careers. An independent black woman (Rhimes’ heroine of choice), Pope also shared the bed of the very-much-married (until the season that just ended) U.S. president, while also having love affairs with the Senate majority leader and the current NSA head. The latter is – among many other things – the President’s closest confidant (they apparently shared some shady black ops in the past).

Hands that write checks

Five seasons ago, when it began, “Scandal” looked like something in the vein of the famed “The West Wing,” showing us the corridors of power and modeled very much on the real thing. But it soon became clear that the series was not only about the people who occupy the rooms along those corridors, but rather about the conspiracies hatched by them when grappling for power. In “Scandal,” U.S. President Fitzgerald Grant III (a Republican), played by Tony Goldwyn, is a good man who got to the White House undeservedly, because of the shady and unlawful machinations of his associates. Now he has to face his own guilt feelings, run the country and appease his very potent libido, all of which spice up the plot. In addition, there is something threatening in the air: a malevolent and immensely powerful factor represented by Olivia’s own father, Elijah “Rowan” Pope, who runs the show according to his own unclear but menacing agenda. (Rowan is played by Joe Morton, who graduated in the fifth season to be a main, and not only recurrent, character.) All this seems to imply, if not state outright, that the balances of American democracy are being manipulated by the hands that write the checks (or strangle those who refuse to do so).

“The West Wing” ended with a president of Hispanic origin, Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) replacing Jed Bartlet (Michael Sheen) in the White House. (There is a theory that the idea of a black president was “marketed” to U.S. voters in the years preceding the two Obama terms by the fictional black president David Palmer in the TV series “24.”)

By the end of the fifth season of “Scandal” there is a Hispanic, Democratic contender for the U.S. presidency, Marco Vargas, who will most probably run in the sixth season against the Republican nominee, the former first lady (now divorced), U.S. Senator Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young). Part of the last episode of the fifth season had to do with their choice of running mates, with all working very hard to outmaneuver the other side.

These plots – in both senses of the word – were taking place on screen while in the real world there were contenders for nominations in both parties vying for the votes of “Scandal” viewers. One of them was and is a woman, a former U.S. Senator and the wife of a former president who succumbed (without admitting it when asked) to the urges of his libido. The other is the larger than life – sometimes grotesquely so – and wildly outspoken Donald Trump, who gets more votes with each preposterous utterance.

How can a fictional TV political thriller series compete with a guy like Trump, who sometimes looks and behaves like a character from a satirical TV series? By running an episode, the penultimate of the fifth season, entitled “The Trump Card.” Here, Olivia Pope, now managing Mellie Grant’s presidential campaign, and White House chief of staff Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield), running VP Susan Ross’s presidential race, join forces to block the presidential campaign of Texas oil lobbyist Hollis Doyle. He is an outspoken, brash, corrupt-to-the-core character based very much on the public image of Donald Trump.

You may have noticed that I have tried very hard not to spoil your viewing pleasure, and did not divulge any secrets of the plot. The last episode of the season left many balls in the air to be juggled by Rhimes in the sixth season. As Fitz ends his second term in the White House, it looks like “Scandal” will have to deal with a president not in office, and soon there will be five living models to serve as inspiration. And anyway, more than a political thriller, “Scandal” is very much a family affair, in which Olivia fights with her overpowering father, trying hard not to become like him – and not succeeding, it seems to me. Originally, the sixth season would have premiered sometime in the fall, its fictional plot running concurrently with real time presidential election news. But real life intervened with Kerry Washington becoming pregnant (the actress gave birth to her first child in season three, but her character, Olivia, had an abortion). Which most probably means that the 16 episodes of season six will commence after the inauguration of the next president, and “Scandal” will have to churn on under its own steam.