Emmy has Scandal-ously omitted the series from major consideration. Will a reinvigorated fifth season change that narrative?
Despite a handful of acting nominations, Scandal has never been a show Emmy voters have assembled around. Kerry Washington held a seat at the table in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for two years but was left out last year. Dan Bucatinsky and Joe Morton each won Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series in consecutive years for their work. Other than that and two other guest acting nominations, the Emmys have failed to incorporate Scandal into other categories.
Some argue its soapy nature and formal style prevent the show from being taken seriously, a view I would counter-argue as riddled in pretentious self-importance. To make the prospects for Shonda Rhimes’ political drama even more grim, the buzz surrounding Scandal has been overshadowed by the newest member to “Shondaland,” How to Get Away with Murder, starring Emmy-winner Viola Davis. The Emmys have proven time and time again that once a show loses buzz, it’s nearly impossible to make a sizable comeback. In the case of Scandal, it’s a shame, seeing as its fifth season was invigorating and enthralling in unprecedented ways thus far in the series’ run.
There is a polarizing effect in the way Scandal is received by those who study and analyze television critically. Scandal does not take notes from other “prestigious” shows in its narrative presentation. It is conducted in a consciously over-the-top dramatic key. Because of that, some viewers flinch away from the show, refusing to consider it in the same breath as more somberly toned shows. One could contend that Scandal is an acquired taste. However, I want to invalidate these excuses for ignoring this series because criticizing a show for being too “soapy” is gendered whether critics like it or not. Using “soapy” as a pejorative is like a scapegoat for excluding shows that aren’t manufactured around a hyper-masculine point of reference. By ignoring shows like Scandal, one would be ignoring glorious cultural discussions about race, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, power, and politics told from an unwavering female perspective.
After its uneven fourth season followed three consistently terrific ones, Scandal began its fifth season by putting all of its cards on the table. In fact, the first half of the fifth season displayed the most audacious narrative developments Rhimes has ever worked into her show. In my experience with television, there’s a frame for the end-game resolution, the conclusion of the series – a will they/won’t they a series uses to to tell a story over a long period of time. Typically, this involves a romantic storyline. With Gilmore Girls, the couple was Lorelai and Luke. With Friends, the couple was Ross and Rachel. With Sex and the City, the couple was Carrie and Big. It was always assumed by fans these couples, despite their obstacles, would end the series together in a happily ever after manner (and they all did). I always assumed Scandal’s end-game would involve the will they/won’t they of Olivia Pope and President Fitzgerald Grant to result in the couple riding off into a Vermont sunset.
However, at the beginning of the fifth season, Rhimes went all in with Olivia and Fitz and allowed them to be together while he was still married and serving as president. Immediately she stopped feigning the show’s end-game was about a romanticized love affair, which allowed for the first nine episodes to be as unpredictable as one could imagine. Each of the fifth seasons’ early episodes uniquely complicated the storyline and changed the narrative direction of the series at large. In addition to the plot simply being a whirlwind, these beginning episodes were ideally fine-tuned from a quality standpoint. Rhimes not only told Olivia and Fitz’s love story in a complete way, but she explored the intricate and emotionally painful layers built into Scandal and the formidable character of Olivia Pope. “Paris is Burning,” “Dog-Whistle Politics,” and “Rasputin” are the episodes that especially stand out in the arc.
The second half of Scandal’s fifth season is more timid than the nine episodes that proceeded it and form less of a unified, clean-cut, experimental arc. However, it’s still television to relish in, largely focusing on the 2016 presidential race. It reflects on the real-life political arena blending into fiction and captivates with elaborate character development. It’s not out of the ordinary for Scandal to have a broader view in its latter half of a season, and in the case of the fifth season, it works well due to the riveting relationship between Olivia and Mellie Grant, Fitz’s ex-wife who seeks out Olivia to run her presidential campaign. This storyline embraces girl power, feminism, and a poised parallel between Mellie and Hillary Clinton.
Rhimes accomplishes more than simply creating agonizing plot twists and fresh narrative arcs. In Scandal’s midseason finale, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Rhimes demonstrated the power she has a cultural force. In the midst of opposition to Planned Parenthood last year between the video controversy and threats of governmental depletion of funds, Rhimes took the opportunity to do something many show-runners would shy away from: Mellie, a Republican United States senator, held an all-day filibuster protesting the defunding of Planned Parenthood, followed by Olivia having an abortion on screen. That’s right: Olivia Pope had an abortion. We all saw it. It wasn’t scary. It wasn’t traumatic. It was a woman exuding agency over her own body and what was best for her life.
When abortion is portrayed in film and television, it’s often shown through a dark lens: the character who was planning on undergoing the abortion changes her mind before the procedure, or she happens into a car accident before reaching the abortion clinic. It’s usually something of that nature. Rhimes said rejected those safe conventions and allowed for her protagonist to make the decision to not carry a fetus to term without justification, apologies, or input from Fitz, who would have been the father to the baby had Olivia decided to carry the feus to term. This unyielding “Her Body, Her Choice” stance in the narrative is revolutionary, even for a show and a showrunner who have produced their fair share of monumental moments.
When the show has received nominations in the past, Scandal has always been celebrated for its actors by the Emmys. Rightfully so, the acting on this show is impressive. The writing allows the actors to unapologetically command scenes with lengthy speeches and extraordinary emotional battles between characters.
Kerry Washington was the victim of a game of musical chairs between an overflowing amount of female actors flourishing in three-dimensional roles competing for Lead Actress slots at the Emmys. Nominated twice, Washington was left out last year and probably will miss again due to a lack of urgency in her show’s award buzz. However, she has every right to be nominated this year and even has a career-best episode in “Thwack” where she muddies Olivia’s morals in a crushing way. It’s the type of acting showcase for Washington that will leave the viewer speechless.
Bellamy Young absorbs series-best material, as well, between Mellie trying to adjust to divorcing Fitz and her quest to quench her own thirst for Oval Office power. Young was previously overlooked for her universally praised work in season three of Scandal, acting which won her the Critics Choice award for Supporting Actress in 2014. One of the fifth season’s best episodes was “The Candidate,” where Olivia and Mellie bond over their shared experience, and it highlights the talent of both actresses, especially Young’s charm and depth in the role.
Recently in a speech, President Barack Obama said that Shonda Rhimes “owns Thursday night.” I cannot help but fully endorse the president’s remarks. Rhimes has become a consequential voice in the entertainment industry, and because of this, Scandal is an important show, one that deserves the honor of being recognized with the Primetime Emmy Awards nominations. Having been nominated three times by the Television Academy in the early days of Greys Anatomy, Rhimes has been curiously absent from the Emmys as her success has expanded in recent years. Rhimes is transforming television as we know. It’s time to reward her, her dazzling imagination, and her ambition in giving authentic voices to disenfranchised groups of people on television.
Kerry Washington, Lead Actress
Bellamy Young, Supporting Actress
Guest Actor/Actress (TBD)