Monday, January 26, 2015

Why ABC's "Scandal" could definitely use some more diversity

ABC's "Scandal" is one of those shows, like "24," that are compulsively and obsessively watchable despite the utter ridiculousness of the plotlines. To be successful, the action on the screen has to come so fast that the viewer doesn't have time to register skepticism, because something else demands immediate attention.

Of course, "Scandal" drew much attention early on for being the first TV show in a long, long, long time to star an African-American actress. Kerry Washington certainly deserves accolades for her portrayal of D.C. fixer Olivia Pope, who exudes competence and control no matter how absurd or seemingly hopeless the latest political crisis to deal with (except when she's swooning over the President, and he over her, which is the weakest part of the show's DNA).

The show can even be given a pass on the diversity front for not having any Asian characters; producer/creator Shonda Rhimes cast Sandra Oh as one of the main characters of "Grey's Anatomy," so it appears that the absence of Asians on "Scandal" is not some sort of blind spot.

However, where "Scandal" falls completely apart on the diversity front appears to be in the ideological diversity of its writers. If there's anyone on the writing staff who isn't at least a mainstream liberal, if not more progressive, you wouldn't know it from the show.

This is a very political show, and it's generally made party affiliations of characters known. President Fitzgerald Grant (played by Tony Goldwin) is a Republican from California. His chief of staff, Cyrus Beene (played by Jeff Perry), is openly gay, but clearly a politically savvy Republican who believes in his boss's agenda. And Olivia Pope, though never openly identified as a Republican, also believed in Grant's campaign so much that she conspired with Beene, Grant's wife, and other power brokers to rig the election in one crucial county in Ohio so that Grant would win.

If you think about it, this was quite an interesting artistic choice. Certainly, Rhimes could have made Grant a Democrat, and nothing would would have been necessarily altered. Democratic regimes, as well as Republican ones, have had their scandals to contain. This would also have allowed the show to portray the political adversaries of the administration in the worst possible light (i.e., those obstructionist Republicans!).

But having two key players in (or formerly in) a Republican administration who are openly gay or African-American, if nothing else, forces the viewers to empathize with, if not root for, the (gasp!) Republicans! Will President Grant get enough votes for his signature proposal? Will his political plans be thwarted by the latest scandal?

The plot arcs in the first three seasons, however, didn't bring out much in the way of domestic political policies (as opposed to politics). The unease between President Grant and Vice President Sally Langston, as a Bible-quoting social conservative put on the ticket to attract Republican base votes, was enough to imply that Grant was a moderate Republican, more like Jon Huntsman than Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee, to use some modern candidates. Apart from that differentiation, however, we didn't get much insight into Grant's political platform.

I've just started catching up on season 4, and boy, that has changed in a hurry. At the end of season 3, Grant's teenaged son died as a result of a bacteriological infection (the result of deliberate action by Olivia Pope's father, though this is largely unknown), the tragedy of which swept Grant back into office for a second term.

In the first episode of season 4, Grant pushes for an equal pay bill, spouting the misleading "women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man" statistic. Wha-??? This is one of the leading Democratic Party platforms, not a Republican one. In fact, in real life, Senate Republicans unanimously blocked an equal pay bill from being voted on in the Senate. House Republicans had earlier also unanimously blocked such a bill. In other words, this is about as realistic as having a show where a Democratic President decides to push, say, a bill banning abortions after the 20th week.

Now, the writers are not stupid, and they have Grant explain that this would be a great way to swing women to the GOP. But why does Grant care about that? He's in his second term, so he doesn't have to face re-election. And can you imagine a show about a President modeled after Bill Clinton who decides to push the aforementioned abortion bill, because it might help swing social conservatives to the Democratic Party???

Wait, it gets worse. Episode 2 focuses around Grant's desire to push through a gun control bill. Grant delivers an emotional speech about how the Second Amendment is "the second stone" in the Constitution. But so too, he adds, was slavery. He then declares that the debate over the right to bear arms ends when a child is shot to death in a school. At least here, the writers have Portia de Rossi playing some kind of Republican advisor who wonders incredulously about why the President is pushing this bill when they're Republicans. (Of course, there is a gun control bill that gets support from Republicans, but it's about undetectable firearms.) But she's also depicted as icy and a pain in the ass to the "good Republicans."

So, in short, there are plenty of Republican characters on this show. They just happen to be sanctimonious, hypocritical, backstabbing religious conservatives like Sally Langston, or they're really just Democrats, like President Grant. If there's ever a need for ideological diversity among the writers, it would be on this show.

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