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5 ways Scandal changed television forever

In the dark, twisty soap, Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington dramatized our political era almost perfectly.

TV fans will say farewell to Scandal’s gladiators forever.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

After seven seasons of skullduggery and crazy plot twists, Scandal ended its run on Thursday, April 19. The series, which began its life in April 2012 as a political crisis of the week show — loosely based on the life of the very real Judy Smith, a former aide to President George H.W. Bush — eventually evolved into one of the decade’s wildest series, forever shifting its status quo and putting its (anti)hero Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) through every wringer it could think of.

The endless churn of story necessitated by a show with a fast pace like Scandal means that the series’ best days are largely behind it. But at its best — particularly in its second and fifth seasons — the series was a wildly entertaining yet thoughtful examination of political power in the United States, as well as who had it, who wanted it, and who was never going to get it. It made all of the dark subtext of Washington into neon-coated text, and even if the Trump era has exhausted the show’s ability to keep ahead of reality, well, it tried.

But Scandal was more than its wildest plot twists or Olivia’s white hat. It was a very real hit that changed the TV industry in more ways than one. In fact, here are five.

1) Scandal helped reawaken network TV’s interest in nonwhite protagonists

Kerry Washington and Scandal guest star Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder)

When Scandal debuted in 2012, you could count the number of women as protagonists in shows on the big four networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox) on your hands and feet. Start trying to count the number of people of color as protagonists on those four networks, and you found yourself reduced to just one hand.

Indeed, Kerry Washington was the first black woman to be the lead of a network drama since 1974 when Scandal began. And though it was slow to start — and was almost canceled after season one — the show’s audience perked up considerably in its second season (about which more in a second). Washington received an Emmy nomination, and by season four, Scandal was one of the top 10 shows on television.

That ABC aired the first series with a black female lead in nearly 40 years can be attributed to two other black women. The first was Smith, upon whom Olivia was putatively based, and the second was creator Shonda Rhimes, one of the most powerful producers in the history of television, whose Grey’s Anatomy remains one of TV’s top hits. And once Scandal (and the Rhimes-produced, Viola Davis-starring How to Get Away with Murder, which debuted in 2014) became a hit, more networks started diversifying their own lineups.

Television still has a long way to go before it achieves anything like diversity that reflects the world as it actually is. But it’s made at least some strides in this regard in the 2010s, and if you look for point one on that chart, you almost have to start with Scandal.

2) Scandal melded Rhimes’s love of big plot twists with morally complicated, cable-style storytelling

A father-daughter chat, Scandal-style.

In the early 2010s, the broadcast networks kept trying to crack the nut of how to tell more morally complicated, adult stories in their dramas — you know, like cable networks were reeling off seemingly as a matter of course. Many of these attempts died almost immediately, while others (particularly the 2009 debut The Good Wife) attracted smaller, tonier audiences.

But Scandal was a show that was interested in the often morally dubious methods that Olivia and the “gladiators” at her political crisis response firm deployed to solve problems, and in how those methods got Olivia into hotter and hotter water. In particular, the hugely divisive fifth season (which I love and other fans ... do not) spent a lot of time forcing the audience to reckon with how many horrible things the characters had done.

But because all of this was wedded to Rhimes’s consummate skill with big plot twists, carried out with panache, Scandal also became a huge hit, at least for a time. It was the ultimate example of how network television — which has always targeted a broader audience than cable or streaming — could tell darker stories without sacrificing the things that made big network shows so fun to watch.

The twists and turns on Scandal were so much fun — until the show made you sit back and realize you were having fun watching people’s lives be dragged into the muck. It was a tricky balance the show didn’t always manage, but when it did, it was exquisite.

3) The show all but invented casts live-tweeting their TV shows

Every Thursday night, the cast of Scandal gathers to live-tweet new episodes of the show. This was happening in the first season. It was happening when the show was a big hit. And it’s still happening now.

At the time, it was seen as a weird gambit for a show that had only seven episodes in its first season and was unlikely to survive to season two. But it helped build a highly engaged audience for the series, one that slowly built word of mouth as season one hit streaming services, then helped the show build and build through season two. Knowing that you could tweet about episodes of your new favorite series with the cast itself made for a far more interactive TV-watching experience than other shows could promise.

And, hey, it worked so well that more and more shows started having their casts live-tweet. It’s never felt quite the same as it did on Scandal, though, because when too many other shows do it, it just feels like a corporate mandate.

4) Scandal became the anti-West Wing, a deeply skeptical examination of American power that saw its tone spread across television

Olivia is skeptical.

Here’s something I wrote toward the end of Scandal’s second season, over at my old publication, the A.V. Club:

Scandal is full of moments when the government fails to protect its citizens because it’s too busy protecting itself—or the rich men who are its greatest benefactors. In an early second-season episode, Olivia and her associates get their hands on a piece of software that allows the government to surveil anyone at any time—a slightly fictionalized version of several real-life government programs—and instead of trying to shut it down because it’s the right thing to do, they try to shut it down because they can use it as leverage against the government to protect their client. When it turns out they’re being played, nobody remarks on how the government spying on its citizens would go against the Constitution. The show doesn’t have to. It portrays the horror of such a scenario by showing how easily Olivia and company are able to hack any computer in the nation, then assumes that the government will go right ahead and do it anyway. This basic storyline plays out over and over again. Government and corporate interests on Scandal have no one’s best interests at heart, and the few people who battle against them—including the show’s one relatively pure character, ADA David Rosen (Joshua Malina, having the time of his life)—are inevitably dragged into the incestuous maw created by the intersection of politics and money.

The more you dug into Scandal on a thematic level, the more it became about a bunch of women and people of color trying to prop up an administration headed up by an empty suit of a white man (Tony Goldwyn’s President Fitzgerald Grant). And even after “Fitz” left office, the series continued its wackadoodle interrogation of American power and even foreign policy. (On the series, the security state is an unchecked behemoth that can do whatever it wants without consequence, almost always to the detriment of everybody.)

In an Obama era when many TV shows struck a more optimistic tone about American government, Scandal’s skepticism stood out. That’s a tone that plenty of TV shows have taken since Scandal debuted — notably House of Cards and the evening news — but Scandal got there first and, arguably, best.

5) Scandal was a show for shippers that kept telling shippers love was a lie

Olitz forever! Or not!

The center of Scandal is the corrosive relationship between Olivia and Fitz — Olitz — which fans loved and which Rhimes always seemed to be cocking an eyebrow and saying, “Really?!” about. Rhimes is great at writing big, romantic speeches, and she gave both Olivia and Fitz some terrific examples of the form, but boy, oh boy, she never tired of showing how the two made each other worse people, how Olivia’s need to give Fitz whatever she could caused her to slip off her game far too many times.

There’s almost no way Scandal doesn’t end its run with Olivia and Fitz together forever, but Rhimes is too canny to make this a happy ending. It’ll seem like one, until you think about it for a couple of seconds and realize how hollow that love really is. Scandal invited you to believe in love, or the government, or in power, and then it laughed at you for getting invested, because everything was a lie. There hadn’t ever been a show quite like it, and I’m not sure there ever will be again.

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