When I was in middle school, I set out to write a novel whose protagonist was a sharp-witted woman who could talk, bluff, threaten, blackmail, and otherwise manipulate her way out of any situation. She was observant, tough, and brilliant enough to come out on top of any of the complicated situations that arose over the course of the novel, which was a sort of supernatural corporate espionage thriller thing.
Here’s the problem: I had written a character who was smarter, quicker, and generally better at everything than I was, in a world that was a little more complex than my imagination could draw clearly. I had the plot outlined, and wrote most of the thing, but left entire chapters blank because I wasn’t yet capable of writing the kind of plot twists, double- and triple-crosses, and tight interplay of strategies that I wanted to include. Everything I thought of seemed too contrived or simplistic, so I put it away for a while and studied up by consuming as many spy thrillers and similar books/movies as I could find. I wanted to make sure my intrigue was as intriguing as possible, drawing the reader in organically, without any need to have someone tell the reader something is important or interesting, as many thrillers do.
This is not, it seems, what the writers of the television show Scandal did. I may be a little late in reviewing the first season of the show, which aired over a year ago, but I only just took the time over this winter break to check out the show after hearing good things about it for a while. But binge-watching it let me noticed a major pattern in the show that became incredibly grating: with one minor exception, every single scandal in Season 1 is a sex scandal. Spoilers ahead.
In Season One of Scandal, every single “scandal” Olivia Pope is called in to deal with has something to do with sex or relationships, except a commercial pilot accused of drinking on the job. Even scandals that seem at first to be more involved turn out to revolve around someone’s genitals. No bribery, no terrorist affiliations, no double-crossing, just a bunch of dudes who can’t keep it in their pants. An overview of the scandals from Season 1:
- POTUS having an affair with a WH aide
- War hero accused of murdering girlfriend, secretly gay
- Son of Someone Important on trial for rape
- Supreme Court nominee appears on madam’s client list
- Foreign Dictator’s wife wants to leave him
- FLOTUS uses gendered position as wife to manipulate people
- VP’s chief of staff having affair with WH aide
- Olivia herself having affair with POTUS
Bargaining chips and strategies used throughout the show are also mostly related to sex and relationships, and include:
- Sex tapes
- Rape accusations
- A “good marriage” image
- Knowledge of someone’s romantic pet names
It seems Pope’s entire job consists of covering up affairs and rehabilitating people’s images once they’re caught having affairs. Even within her own not-a-law-firm, the Tortured Backstories that get slowly revealed for the characters skew toward relationships, especially for the female characters. Olivia’s Big Secret is her love for the president, Abby’s Big Secret is an abusive ex-husband, and Quinn’s Big Secret is the most disappointing one of all, and its reveal was what really convinced me that the writers had nothing to work with but the idea that sex is the biggest big deal of all big deals ever.
We get hints throughout the season that Quinn has a Dark Secret, and we gather later that she’s a nationally wanted fugitive with a new identity. At this point, I was thinking perhaps she was a member of a domestic terrorist group who had some kind of inside knowledge Olivia wanted. Or perhaps she was a top-secret government agent gone rogue with some important information. But in the end, she turned out to be a combination of two far more boring tropes: the crazy-jilted-lover and the girl-next-door, accused of concocting a half-baked plot to get revenge at a cheating boyfriend. Quite a letdown after the buildup of Quinn’s character throughout the whole season - they really couldn’t think of any more interesting reason a young woman would change her identity and get wrapped up with Pope & Associates?
The show’s primary assumption - that sexual choices and behaviors are the determining factors in a person’s moral character and professional success - is a fundamentally flawed one, especially in 2013. The “closeted war hero” digs in his heels and refuses to come out as gay, until Olivia magically convinces him to do so. Once he does, we see no negative consequences, rendering all of his resistance a moot plot point. And I have a hard time believing that a man’s lifelong demonstration of legal and constitutional brilliance must be eclipsed by the fact that his name shows up (along with dozens of others) on a classy escort client’s list from over two decades ago. These stories are not compelling, since it’s hard to believe that the stakes are nearly as high as all of Olivia’s feverish scheming would indicate.
It’s as if the writers of Scandal suffer from the brain’s equivalent of a Chrome extension that places the modifier “sex” in front of the noun “scandal” every single time the word appears. They cannot seem to imagine a way for a person to find themselves in professional or personal trouble without sex being involved. In the world of Scandal, no one ever accepts bribes, only bjs, and the only things that need to be covered up are soiled sheets. It’s an interestingly naive view of human nature - that we are not driven by greed, or hatred, but the simple desire for a warm body next to us, and that even the most shrewd strategist can be undone by their romantic desires. But it’s also unrealistic and unimaginative, and makes for a fictional world where all moral compasses are pointed in the same direction and every character’s motives and every plot’s stakes are drawn from the same flat blueprint.