clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why every major network wants an Olivia Pope

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

This TV season, it's impossible to get away from Olivia Pope.

For Scandal's nearly 10 million viewers, there can never be enough Pope. They make their feelings heard loud and clear every Thursday night on social media and have even carved out a new way of measuring live television, as Nielsen now counts how well a show does on Twitter.

With a living, breathing successful television show on its hands, ABC and its rival networks are studying Scandal in hopes of recapturing its success with their new fall shows. One way they're doing so is by building characters that emulate Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope. A survey of many of this season's new television shows and their main protagonists reads as if it were a roster of women tailor-made to go head-to-head with the best fixer in DC.

Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) is the Secretary of State in Madam Secretary, an altruistic academic who also has ties to shady Russians. In How to Get Away with Murder, Professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) is one of the top criminal defense lawyers in the country but has a personal life that's in shambles. In State of Affairs, Katherine Heigl plays CIA analyst Charlie Tucker, who has a special (not Olivia's kind of special) relationship with the sitting president and has to make tough decisions (i.e. killing FBI-wanted terrorists) that bleed into her personal life.

These shows all point to the fact that Pope has become one of the main standards when you go looking for commanding female characters on television.

She's not the first

Pope is a howling maelstrom of a character. She emits a toughness that comes from deep emotional wounds. She's glamorous but has her fingerprints all over the filthiest deeds in Washington. Her morality isn't sterling, nor is it ever truly independent from her selfishness. But what underpins her character, in scene after scene, is a commitment to her own excellence, as well as a ruthlessly competitive drive to achieve that excellence.

Cracking the combination and correct proportions of traits that make Pope appealing is difficult. It even took Scandal a while to find just the right mix. That's part of the reason some of the new Olivias fall flat and sound unnatural, either too muzzled or too blunt.


Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope (ABC)

The other reason Olivia succeeds as a character is the world that Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes has crafted around Olivia. Rhimes's DC is equal parts frightening and flimsy. Power is carnally fetishized, and the pace stays frenetic. The women in this world are often stuck in the gilded cages of political marriages or political affairs.

Watching Olivia glide through this landscape of brash, sometimes sexy ghouls is satisfying. Her moral faults become her body armor — a necessity in this universe. Wanting to see Olivia succeed and wield her power isn't so much about seeing her rewarded for being a good person as it is about seeing Pope in charge of this menacing place.

But Olivia Pope wasn't the first strong female character to learn how to live up to her best self in a world where women are constantly diminished, even in recent memory.

The Good Wife's Alicia Florrick (Juliana Marguiles) has been a stoic, deliberate, impenetrable force for five seasons of that show. And Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), a recent departure but longtime veteran of Rhimes's Grey's Anatomy, was a character who unapologetically got high from performing cardiothoracic surgery. On the same show, Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), Yang's first-year mentor and eventual colleague, fought similar battles.

Bailey, Florrick, Pope, and Yang thrive in male-dominated worlds, where their sexuality — from whom they're sleeping with to questions about having or raising children — and gender are constant points of conflict. Each one has had to learn how to play by the rules, make her own odds, and maneuver in this space.

The shows these characters star in prod at and highlight the fickle double standards these women have to face. And that's a subject that's constantly relevant in our own world.

The Rise of Olivia Pope


These new Olivias are popping up around two years after Scandal premiered in 2012. That was the same year The Atlantic's huge Anne-Marie Slaughter cover story "Why Women Can't Have It All," a dissection of what happens when women's professional and family lives intersect, was widely discussed. We're still having conversations about the issues raised in Slaughter's essay, but it's important to remember what spurred her into writing the essay: she was sick of watching young women being duped into believing a fairytale.

"The striking gap between the responses I heard from those young women (and others like them) and the responses I heard from my peers and associates prompted me to write this article," Slaughter wrote. She added, "When many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating 'you can have it all' is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk."

2012 was also the same year that Lena Dunham's Girls premiered. While Slaughter was talking to young women, showing them harsh truths and speaking with a wisdom gleaned from years of experience, Dunham was deeply invested in showing us a fatalistic view of young women who can't have anything.

Olivia Pope offers a different option. She's fully aware of not being to able to have it all. (In her case, the stakes are soapier, since "having it all" involves sleeping with the president.) Instead, Olivia shows us that there's nothing wrong with trying to have everything that she can.

This idea of not having it all isn't the only cultural conversation we're having. A.O. Scott wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times Magazine last week, theorizing on the death of the patriarchy and adulthood. Scandal is one of the shows he points to as a creative response to the glum Tony Sopranos and Don Drapers on television:

When you look beyond the gloomy-man, angry-man, antihero dramas that too many critics reflexively identify as quality television — House of Cards, Game of Thrones, True Detective, Boardwalk Empire, The Newsroom — you find genre-twisting shows about women and girls in all kinds of places and circumstances, from Brooklyn to prison to the White House. The creative forces behind these programs are often women who have built up the muscle and the résumés to do what they want.

Grantland's Mark Harris had similar feelings, writing in 2013, about a defining moment for television dramas and how women like Pope are a crucial part of this:

This year did not mark the last gasp of the golden age, but instead a redefinition and re-gendering of what great television drama can be. It can be on a network. It can manipulate forms as dowdy and unrevered as the weekly procedural or the prime-time soap melodrama. And it can star women.

Where does Olivia go from here?



Even if the reason — ratings — isn't intrinsically pure, there is something heartening and affirming about networks realizing that female characters are crucial. As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff reported in July, Scandal's success has spurred ABC to invest in shows that offer more diverse portrayals of the American public.

Maybe that will work. Maybe Olivia Pope's greatest victory will be spurring networks into investing in shows centered on female characters and believing they can be both ratings and critical sensations — even if the shows they make aren't very good, like this year's batch of copycats. All of these shows, one (How to Get Away with Murder) from Rhimes's own production company, no less, struggle with how to build upon the ground Scandal broke, and they sometimes blunder badly.

As for Olivia herself, it'll be fun to see where Rhimes takes her this season and what kind of role Olivia plays, particularly after a third season that seemed to push those questions as far as they could go. We know that Pope can be a great mirror, reflecting a frustration of women's professional lives from the real world. Where else can Rhimes push her — and the conversation?

A look at The New Olivias:



Charlie Tucker

Her show: State of Affairs

Played by: Katherine Heigl

Why she is the next Olivia Pope: As a valued CIA analyst, Tucker has an important job that has massive implications for the government. She, like Pope, has good outfits and surrounds herself with a team that likes to talk about serious things (like murder) with laughs interspersed. The show also seems to really want to get across that Tucker can have casual sex and drink and still be the best CIA analyst in the biz.

Why she isn't the next Olivia Pope: Tucker seems more interested in talking a big game than actually making the big sweeping moves that Pope does.

Elizabeth McCord

Her show : Madam Secretary

Played by: Téa Leoni

Why she is the next Olivia Pope: McCord is a high-powered woman in Washington who assumes the office of Secretary of State. Her predecessor's death seems shadowy — maybe Scandal's secret ops division B-613 had a hand in it.

Why she isn't the next Olivia Pope: The show constantly reminds us that McCord is not stylish. McCord also doesn't have the crack team of gladiators that Pope has. Instead, McCord has what seems like a solid marriage. One of her two children is even likable.

Professor Annalise Keating

Her show: How to Get Away with Murder

Played by: Viola Davis

Why she's the next Olivia Pope: Keating is one of the best criminal defense attorneys in the game. She deals with murderers, has a complicated love life, and has a pair of assistants who don't get along. She also, like Pope, is a woman of color in a world where women of color are hardly ever seen. Also, like Scandal, the show is constantly reminding us that it's pretty GIFable.

Why she isn't the next Olivia Pope: Keating (so far) doesn't seem to be the string-puller that Pope is. There is no big bad force like the government (yet).

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.