The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Television Collision: Showrunner Fatigue and the Case of Scandal

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

In the world of television I believe in the general rule that it is never a good thing when a single showrunner/creator is given too much power. Currently we are seeing this phenomenon with Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, both of which just have to spit out any (old) new idea and some network will pick it up, no questions asked.
This is a terrible idea, because it means those two no longer have to stay on their toes, they get complacent and it shows in their products.

I don’t really want to get into the Ryan Murphy case here. He has no follow-through on his ideas, which is painfully evident in Glee, even more evident on American Horror Story and will probably plague his new half-hour comedy The New Normal soon enough.

Instead, let us talk about Shondaland and the products that have come out of it so far. It all started with Grey’s Anatomy, basically a soap opera more or less cleverly wrapped in a medical show. Just two summers ago I actually rewatched the early seasons of GA and discovered that we didn’t retcon it into being great, it actually was a great show once. Funny, sarcastic and genuinely surprising. But as it is so often the case, the longer a show goes on, the more labored and tiresome it gets and these past two to three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy have clearly shown signs of deterioration.

The GA spin-off Private Practice was even soapier from the get-go. I gave up on it after a season, because the adults on PP were behaving even more like teenagers than the ones on Grey’s Anatomy, and they didn’t even have decent excuses for it. PP was always a bit more melodramatic than Grey’s, but also went to some very dark places surrounding rape, abuse and child birth/adoption etc, for which the show deserves credit, even though it is largely intolerable for men to watch.

Next came the utterly forgettable and at times quite excruciating Off the Map. My review of it can still be found here on CC2K, but let me summarize: despite all claims to the contrary, it really was just Grey’s Anatomy in the jungle and a pretty prejudiced jungle at that. The young doctors MacGyvered their way through impossible medical dilemmas and eventually all gave in to the “heat” with one of the other doctors. Thankfully, viewers only needed one Grey’s Anatomy and ratings for Off the Map led to its cancellation. I rejoiced at this fact, because Off the Map was a half-baked concept, leisurely thrown out there because the network thought viewers couldn’t get enough of the melodramatic antics Shonda Rhimes can come up with.
I have no doubt Rhimes cared about Off the Map and its characters, but ultimately her vision of OtM wasn’t differentiated and special enough to resonate with audiences and for what it’s worth, sometimes failure is healthy for a showrunner as powerful as Shonda Rhimes.

Artists of any medium become entitled and conceited when they never fail and no one criticizes their work. To her great credit, Shonda Rhimes has never given a disrespectful interview or shot off her mouth the way Ryan Murphy has done repeatedly.
There is a certain type of television Shonda Rhimes does fairly well, but her latest show Scandal, which premiered last week on ABC, does not impress me and worries me that Rhimes needs to be kept on her toes a little more these days, or her vision will run stale.

Scandal is essentially the poor man’s Damages. If you haven’t seen Damages, starring the fantastic Glenn Close and Rose Byrne, then shame on you and go Netflix it right this instant!
The plotline of Damages’ first season (per IMDB) reads like this: “Bright and sharp law school graduate Ellen Parsons becomes the protégée of the successful and hard-hitting high stakes litigator Patricia Hewes. But nothing is what it seems.”
Ellen soon finds herself in world full of betrayal, blackmail, political scandals, and murder and it only gets worse from there. Damages was deliciously evil, dark, twisted and scary. A true tour-de-force of television and a redefinition of the typical lawyer show in as much the way as The Good Wife is these days redefining it yet again.

Enter Scandal, for which the tagline (again, per IMDB) reads: “When you get into trouble there’s only one person to call, Olivia Pope. Olivia is a professional ‘fixer’ who makes problems go away before anyone even knows they exist.” And the pilot episode, unsurprisingly, features a bright, young, sharp female lawyer named Quinn Perkins being hired by Olivia and seeing herself confronted with a world of lies, deceit, betrayal and politics. Sound familiar from the paragraph above? Yeah, I thought so.

Scandal is basically Grey’s Anatomy set in Washington, DC and in the world of lawyers and politics. Because lawyers, like doctors, are notorious (at least on TV) for not having a home life, of course we’ll see plenty of office romance and the pilot already reveals that our lovely heroine Olivia Pope once had an affair with, hold on to your pants, kids, the President of the United States of America. Can it get any more dramatic than that? I am already groaning at the cheap way the tension is supposedly heightened by this. Not that presidents aren’t capable of being morally corrupt and “dark and twisty people” (to borrow from Meredith Grey’s jargon), but it’s a pretty easy way to make a show FEEL high-stakes when really it is about as believable as the SpongeBob universe.

Yet for the purposes of television, we are often willing to accept a version of our reality that is only slightly twisted. It looks like our reality, it’s on the same time as our reality and yet something is always a little off about it. Actions don’t have the same consequences in the TV reality as in ours, people don’t act according to the same logic, and everything is much more life and death than it ever is in our “real” reality. Few shows ever puncture this façade we have all agreed to play along with for so long, especially not in the genre of medical, political or procedural shows. The tired old excuse that “It’s just television, it’s meant to entertain” gets dragged out over and over and gives the television of today a nice little out and lets showrunners and creators off the hook easy. As an audience, we keep giving them license to present us with a slightly askew version of reality, which in turn screws with our actual view of our actual reality (an undeniable fact, no one anywhere can ever rightfully claim that the media they consume does not influence them in some way, which can be positive or negative).

I don’t want to make Scandal the poster child for this phenomenon of tilting reality just enough so that – at an angle – we can look at it as if it was reality. Plenty of shows on the air right now are guilty of this. Scandal is just the latest show that made me think about the phenomenon in general.
Scandal – based on the two episodes I have seen so far – is not as terrible as Off the Map often was. And I especially welcome Scandal having a black female lead, which is still rare enough on television, even when you look at cable programs. What immediately rubs me the wrong way about Scandal though is the fact that it is bound to have a whole lot of “very special episodes”, highlighting various social and political issues that are worth highlighting, but worth highlighting in a more serious, nuanced, less-issue-of-the-week kind of way. The way The Wire shone a light on school politics or The West Wing shone a light on White House politics.

The pilot episode of Scandal not only revealed that Olivia Pope had a love affair with the way-too-young-to-be-president President, it also featured a young, highly decorated military officer coming out as “gay” to the world so that he could prove he didn’t kill his girlfriend, who was acting as his beard.
*cue groans right now*
It’s a very, very, very (VERY!) valuable messages these days, because we desperately need more tolerance and common sense in the world, but the way it is executed on Scandal makes it feel cheap. The issue becomes a mere plot point, a throw-away punchline, an easy way to an inspirational moment to end an episode of television on, only to be forgotten in the next episode. Therefore, it doesn’t help the actual cause at all, if anything, it hurts the case for a more open way to deal with homosexuality in our society, because none of the backlash is dealt with on Scandal. In the slightly-askew universe of Scandal, the backlash doesn’t exist. In the real world, however, it does. And it’s a long battle to affect change. One episode of Scandal makes no difference at all, it just further clouds the judgment of those who are already uninformed about this kind of socio-political causes.

There are various other things that are off about Scandal and make it unpleasant TV to me. For example, whose idea was it to make the office of Pope & Associates a windowless warehouse-looking place with gray marble floors and indecent lighting? They look like they are holed up in an expensive bunker waiting for nuclear eradication. It’s quite terrible.
And while in the first few seasons of Grey’s Anatomy I still found rapidly talking and thereby bumbling people charming, the pattern has run its course and is very predictable coming from Rhimes by now. So many of her characters display this kind of behavior (early Meredith, April Kepner, Lexi Grey, Mina Minard and now Quinn Perkins) that they pretty much become interchangeable in my head and therefore by default boring.

Here is my biggest complaint about Scandal though: it doesn’t have anything new to say. It is immediately identifiable as a Shonda Rhimes show, but unfortunately brings with it all the baggage this statement implies. The longer Rhimes has been allowed to share her vision with the world, the more she has neglected the quirky, humorous elements evident in her early work and the more she has descended into the melodramatic, heavily burdened by obvious social messages, repetitive elements of her art. There seem to be some central character conflicts she is unable to work out no matter how many characters she imbues with the “dark and twisted soul” that so firmly inhabits Meredith Grey. Many artists have such a central problem they just can’t seem to resolve, but to me it has become tedious to watch Shonda Rhimes attempt to do so on screen in show after show she is churning out.

Some artistic blockages are best left on the top shelf for a while until suddenly, years later and in an unexpected moment, the perfect resolution presents itself and the vision can come to life and come full circle.
It is this form or artistic restraint that becomes rarer in a world of television politics in which successful showrunners get project after project greenlighted by executives that only look at the bottom line. Not every idea is worth being put on the screen, but not every TV executive is as gutsy as AMC this year to decline every single pilot they are presented with and send everybody back to the drawing board.

Somewhere within Scandal there might be a genuinely good show that’s buried underneath the supposedly “high stakes” and the heavy-handed social and political messages. But even if there were, Shonda Rhimes is not the TV creator to bring it out. Scandal is exactly her kind of show. Over the top, witty at times, overly constructed most other times, obvious and most definitely geared towards a female audience. In many ways, Shonda Rhimes is a one trick pony, but she is smart enough to ride that pony all the way to the bank.
I for one am over it and I won’t go along for the ride anymore.