Idealism Lost: From The West Wing to Scandal

Televised depictions of the cities in which I’ve lived have always captured my imagination — Law & Order gave me a taste of New York City long before I’d ever set foot in that city and David E. Kelley made Boston seem like it was full of diabolical whackos —  but the way Washington, D.C., is drawn on the small screen goes a long way toward justifying why I find this city so compelling.

With all due respect to Commander in Chief or House of Cards (or NCIS?), The West Wing towers over any other dramatization of the Beltway politics.  Not only did the show cement Aaron Sorkin as the angry mouthpiece of the liberal masses, but West Wing was a bonafide television hit.  In its heyday, eighteen million Americans watched President Jed Bartlett and his small band of super-efficient, all-knowing staffers discuss campaign finance reform, deficits, and the 25th Amendment.

The West Wing was in its prime when I was still in high school, and while it could be a bit heavy-handed with its discussion of public policy, I’d argue the average episode provided a better civics lesson that most high school government courses.  For all the show’s flaws or usage of dramatic license, it remains the show that countries like Burma, emerging from repressive rule, use it to learn about democracy!  Re-watching The West Wing today, one cannot help but be impressed with the school’s willingness to tackle sexy issues and policy minutiae with equal dedication. Where sitcoms have madcap adventures on tax day, The West Wing did a comedic plot line around using tax rebates as stimulus.  I learned about Hubbert’s Peak on an episode of The West Wing.

I am only a little bit embarrassed to admit that The West Wing was partly responsible both for my interest in public policy and the law.  Yes, I was one of those people, captivated by the wit of Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman and Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn, flashing their prestigious law degrees, and I thought that maybe I could be that someday.  I was hardly a political progressive when the series began, but I remember being absolutely inspired by Sorkin’s portrayal of people with diverse backgrounds coming together via politics to make a difference.

I knew this was fantasy, but it’s an appealing one.  In a recent revisiting of the show, critic Graeme McMillan suggested that the underlying fantasy of The West Wing was that Washington has not just a few good men, but rather that it is filled with good men.  I was hardly a political progressive when the series began, but I knew then that I wanted to be one of those good men in Washington.

Which brings me to more recent guilty pleasure: Scandal.  If The West Wing was embarrassingly inspirational to me, Scandal appeals to my most cynical sensibilities, tarts them up more a bit, and delivers what my favorite television critic has called a “gonzo hybrid of conspiracy thriller and high-stakes soap opera.”  The series, for those who roll their eyes at the prospect of watching a Shonda Rhimes-helmed drama, focuses on D.C. fixer Olivia Pope, the President’s mistress and obviously, a one-time lawyer.  Where Josh and Sam went to the White House to bring change, Olivia goes to the White House to put a pretty face on ugly power.

The sharpest contrast between my two District-based shows is that where The West Wing assumed everyone was good, Scandal seems hell bent on demonstrating how horrible anyone in pursuit of power can become. Subtleties of policy are irrelevant, when public policy is merely a weapon to use against one’s political rivals. The American public become pawns, whose sacrifices are routinely described as their “patriotic duty” to Washington’s power players.  Scandal is Machiavellian politics in the guise of attractive people, and each week I find myself glued to see how low our would-be heroes will sink.

Two things make Scandal so compelling.  First, its writers have thrown caution to the wind, burning through storylines at a rate that makes it remarkable the whole thing hasn’t already crumbled on the weight of it’s rapidly-expanding mythology.  Twists are layered upon twists, and this is the byproduct of the show seeing how deliciously evil it can make its characters.  They play against type — I got hooked as soon as the show’s mild-mannered granny-esque Supreme Court justice was revealed as a would-be assassin, but everyone is portrayed as willing to do anything to get what they want, even as what they truly want remains undefined.  With the cast in a perpetual race to the bottom, Scandal‘s world is also quick to exploit optics.  The First Lady views her pregnancy as a “civic duty” to provide “America’s baby.”  The show’s defining relationship is a “romance” between the white, Republican president and Olivia, his African-American muse, and Scandal is quick show how the entire affair is toxic for both characters and everyone around them, even as the relationship’s racial implications are portrayed as a potential boon for race relations in America.

Scandal speaks to our unfulfilled ambitions and abandoned dreams, and how desperation can emerge from the recognition of our own limitations.  As one might narratively expect, the White House Chief of Staff is a mustache-twirling villain, but his ambition is largely fueled by his fear of slipping from his station in life:

I wasn’t made to be the Chief of Staff. Do you know what I was made to be? I was made to be the President of the United States. I was made to lead the nation. I was made to ensure this country’s place in the world for generations to come. I would’ve been great at that. I have the stones. I have backbone. I have the will. I would have been a great President. But guess what? I’m fairly short, and I’m not so pretty, and I really like having sex with men. . . . I’ll never be in the history books. My name will never be on an airport or a doctrine. Being the guy behind the guy is as far as my road goes.

Scandal is the story of what can go wrong when we push against our limitations.  Olivia Pope, who literally wears the series’ white hat, is a powerful person defined by her weak character.  Kerry Washington does a tremendous — and stylish — job making Olivia’s likable even as her fixer persona acts as an agent of chaos.

The first real villain explains that Olivia Pope destroys lives, and “yeah, she’ll end up fixing it for you, she’ll break out the crazy glue, but that’s only because she broke it in the first place. She took your life from you, she took justice from you.”  Even as a viewer who is primed to be on Olivia’s side, this assessment rings true.

More so because it is spoken to only remaining “good guy” left, the U.S. Attorney who crusades for justice even as both Olivia and the White House work against him.  Coincidently, AUSA David Rosen is played perfectly by regular Sorkin-player Joshua Malina, who played a similar sad sack on, yes, The West Wing.  Therek is some irony that the only source of good in Scandal comes as an import from The West Wing.

And, so even while Scandal offers a sensationally dark depiction of a broken Washington more in line with today’s disappointments, its version of Washington still has some echo, some carryover of Aaron Sorkin’s love letter to American democracy.  Two extreme examples for what makes Washington so compelling, but I would be embarrassed to say which one I find more entertaining . . .

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