Last year, upon my Thursday night arrival in Seattle at the annual Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference, I came upon a considerable contingent of colleagues (professors) watching television in the hotel’s bar-lounge. What, you might wonder, compelled the interest of the world’s foremost experts in cinematic and communications-related arts? A newly unearthed edit of Citizen Kane? A sneak preview of the iPhone 7? Secret home movies of a teenage Barack Obama?
No. They were watching Scandal.
Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal has mostly been discussed in terms of its breakthroughs in race and gender, so rather than venture down that well-trod road, I’d like to look a little closer at its style. I would contend that Scandal’s unusual style gives it rare appeal amongst the hoipolloi, the sort of intellectual viewers who wouldn’t normally get near something quite so soapy – while Scandal remains sudsy enough to retain its soap loyalists. The show’s techniques are somewhat perfect for the ABC network’s turn-it-UP branding – in fact, they’ve arguably reinvented that channel’s look-at-us brand.
What style do I mean? Let’s begin with the “shutter edits” — the very quick cuts (typically more than three consecutive shots, each shot lasting less than half-a-second) that often bridge two scenes. We often see D.C. landmarks, or neo-classical outcroppings, or bits of places where scenes are set (a park bench, a desk, a table). These are accompanied by generous fades to white that often last one or two frames (one frame = 1/24th of a second) and the noises of cameras, the same “click click click” that Duran Duran and the J. Geils Band sampled on, respectively, “Girls on Film” and “Freeze-Frame.” The show employs a similar, slightly different style when the “gladiators,” namely Olivia Pope’s staff, get down to business on a case: we get shutter edits of 8½-by-11 glossies of their latest subject/client – head shots that look like mug shots – while the team posts them to their glass wall. Scandal’s shutter edits, then, tell us that the show is getting down to business, that work is being done, that the stakes are being raised.
The shutter edits are perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Scandal, other than the occasional refractive edges on the left and right sides of the frame. Typically (though not exclusively) confined to the offices of Olivia Pope and Associates, the refractive filter looks a bit like a mirror with an angled edge, giving a subject a somewhat “split” appearance – perhaps a literally duplicitous visage. Combined with the shutter edits, the overall effect might be described as “life in a fishbowl,” as though Scandal is revealing life behind what the paparazzi publicizes. Apparently, these power brokers are just like us, except that their conversations are a lot more urgent, and their montages are set to 70s soul music.
It’s this somewhat daring formal style that serves to package what’s otherwise quite soapy. Naturally I mean “soapy” in the sense of a soap opera, with broadly defined characters, melodramatic speeches, and recurrent, inorganic plot twists. Outside of the shutter edits and refractive frame edges, the directorial style is pure broadcast network drama: establishing shots with a slowly moving dolly (often scored with a barely heard ominous hum), then close-up, close-up, close-up, close-up. Two- and three-shots are rare, and typically signify that a scene is either just beginning or ending. The lighting could be described in one word: bright. Okay, not quite as monochromatically lit as daytime scenes on Days of Our Lives or General Hospital, but certainly not the natural light of a show like Veep, nor the relentless darkness of House of Cards. Everyone on Scandal looks to be wearing freshly ironed clothes, having just come from their mani-pedi, more ready for a photo shoot than for shooting down threats to the nation. Scandal serves up a wedding-cake-fantasy version of D.C., and then feeds you the idea that our government is staffed by corrupt murderers.
It’s easy to see, then, why Scandal would be a hit overseas, where audiences have shown consistent appetites for American glitz and glamour, avant-garde techniques, and critiques of U.S. government hypocrisy. It’s a little less clear why Americans have embraced it so enthusiastically – inside and outside of academia. Perhaps Americans are becoming more like our overseas counterparts. Or perhaps it’s because on Scandal, the acting is often excellent, and the writing, if frequently tending toward the implausible, is sharp and taut – the characters are pretty much lurching from one crisis to the next with just enough time to guess at what it all means. Viewers of every nation respond to breathy breathlessness. (They come for the procedural, they stay for the personal drama – Scandal just jettisoned the first part after a while.)
But the “meta” nature of Scandal’s style seems important here, the way that the camera-clicking and the framing pays loud attention to itself only to show us…horrible people, ever so slightly mitigated by Olivia’s dedication to “white hats.” The show goes through the looking glass of celebrity attention, puts it in quotation marks, and tells us that these people are even more tawdry than we expected. They’re not just sleeping around, they’re playing oneupmanship with our Republic, and we get the government we deserve, don’t we? That’s the real “Scandal,” isn’t it?
It also feels relevant to note that ABC, more than a decade after appearing to flounder with Lloyd Braun’s yellow “TV is good” campaign, has settled right into its implications, a somewhat “meta” identity that Americans love to hate, hate to love, and love to hate-watch. While CBS is old people and nerds, FOX is attitude (“That’s So Fox”), and NBC is sports, The Voice, and sitcoms (running on fumes), ABC is Dancing With the Stars, The Bachelor(ette), Modern Family, the Oscars, and the Shonda Rhimes Thursday heavy hitters. What is that? It’s a bit like certain burlesque shows and old vaudeville, a little bit of “here’s entertainment, and we know that this isn’t perfect, but aren’t we having a grand old time anyway?” There’s a way in which shows like these invite the complicitiy of the viewer, suggesting that we’re all in this silliness together. This isn’t HBO, this isn’t FX, this isn’t quality as we know it from Rotten Tomatoes scores and imdb lists and critics’ favorites and such. The awards ship sailed away long ago (except for Modern Family; that should self-correct). Perhaps the “Scandal” is that we get the TV we deserve, and that a self-referential, look-ma!-no-hands ABC is what so many of us really want.