Scandal, ABC's blockbuster bananas political melodrama, returns for the back half of its third season on February 27. Frequently the most-tweeted-about show in America, Scandal focuses on the adventures (political and otherwise) of Washington's best fixer, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and her cabal of "gladiators in suits." Pope is having a torrid affair with the sitting Republican president (Tony Goldwyn). His wife, Mellie (Bellamy Young) is equal parts conniving and fragile, topped only by his closeted gay advisor Cyrus Beene (Jeff Young), who's married to a White House reporter, whom he essentially whored out to the Bible-thumping vice president's husband . . . let's just say, watching the show is never dull.
Scandal's showrunner is Shonda Rhimes, who also created Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice. Her show makes the wackadoodle antics of House of Cards' second season seem totally plausible. And it's working: in a world where Parks & Recreation gets 2.5 million viewers, Mad Men gets 3.4 million, and Game of Thrones pulls in 4.4 million, Scandal's audience routinely tops a whopping 8.3 million, crossing traditional demographic barriers like race and economic bracket (though the fact it's on network TV rather than cable has to help).
All this is fascinating, because in a TV landscape crowded with redonkulous political shows, Scandal stands out for its absolute commitment to be entertainment. Several of the performances—Kerry Washington in particular—have won accolades from viewers and critics. But the show only sort of even tries to trick you into thinking this is the real D.C., instead settling for some cross between junior high school and The Tudors, in which everyone (and I mean everyone) constantly speaks as if intoxicated. It. Is. Just. Nuts.
Yet despite all that, Scandal feels like the most human of all political shows. In stark contrast to House of Cards, for instance, there are no superhuman characters. Everyone is, quite simply, a mess. Affairs cloud judgement, people do stupid stuff, and the rich and powerful get their misdeeds swept under the rug - except when they don't, of course.
But maybe what's most interesting about the show is that political parties matter basically zero in this world, where the ostensibly Republican president sounds like a leftward-listing moderate whenever actual matters of policy come up. Especially when held against his cardboard cut-out of a Bible-thumping Southern Tea Party vice president.
The real divide, and the real struggle, is not between left and right, nor is it between progressive and conservative. Unlike The Newsroom (in whose idealistic universe, the ideals of politicians and pundits are expected to hold up to reason, sense, and consistency), in Scandal, the struggle is between the pragmatists and the idealists, which explains why it's somehow possible for Pope to gamely jump between parties as a strategist.
The pragmatist believes not so much that the end justifies the means as that the means determine what justice even is. Things become "true" because they work. By contrast, the idealist has a set of absolute external values (derived, perhaps, from an ideology or religious framework) that are applied to situations. For the pragmatist, there is nothing outside the situation from which we might conclude that a political action is right or wrong. It's right if it works. But for the true idealist, compromise of any kind is unthinkable.
Olivia Pope embodies this struggle. Every action in Scandal's universe is driven by the ends—by what "works" at the moment, what seems correct at the time, a sort of individualistic realpolitik. Pope fixes situations for politicians and public figures who'd like to politely sidestep the law. She's willing to sleep with the married president over and over, reasoning that he's unhappy anyway and at some point, when he leaves public office, he'll also be able to leave the conniving Mellie and they can be together at last. She and the president's cronies even fixed the election, after a fashion, telling themselves that they were doing it for the country's good.
You could argue that there's not a wide gulf between Olivia Pope and, say, Frank and Claire Underwood, the calculating couple at the center of House of Cards whose only good is their own ascent to power. (In fact, characters in the second season of House of Cards, which released on Netflix two weeks ago, repeatedly refer to the Underwoods as "ruthless pragmatists.")
But Scandal gives Pope an extra facet the Underwoods lack: she is very concerned with "wearing the white hat," a phrase that surfaced at the start of the show as Pope tries to convince a new staff member that their illegal "fixing" was morally okay. That white hat is what Pope needs to tell herself that she's not a bad person even though, on paper, she sure can look like one. But the greatest shifts in her character occur when she realizes that her sense of what the white hat-wearer ought to do was off—that what she told herself she was doing for the good of the country was, in fact, for her own good.
So when it gets knocked off, how can Olivia get the white hat back on? Though the show purports to answer this question, the fact is that this D.C. is devoid of any framework for real moral judgments, except from backwards sourpusses like the vice president (who nevertheless has her own confrontation with her ideals in the third season). Others who seem to be idealists simply get trampled, like the U.S. Attorney, who tries for many episodes to enact justice according to the law, but eventually caves after the powerful pragmatists cause his life to grind to a halt. Nobody's willing to say that one thing is better than another, because they have no way to judge other than what seems to be working at the time. There are no values. They serve themselves (or those with whom they're sleeping).
This is what makes a show like The Americans so interesting. The FX drama, whose second season starts February 26, focuses on Cold War-era Soviet spies (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) who have been living in D.C. for decades. They've posed as an average married American couple, the Jennings, with two kids and a picket fence. In fact, they are not married (though they have lived as such and have children together), and their jobs and lives are merely a front for their work as KGB agents.
The Americans' first season posed an interesting question, one that strikes today's viewer as almost anachronistic: what could possibly inspire this kind of unswerving loyalty to an ideal of home and country in intelligent, modern people? Early on, Phillip (Rhys) considers whether it might be better for him and Elizabeth (Russell) to defect—America, he says, isn't such a bad place after all, and has been a good place for him and his family. They remain KGB, but their loyalties are sorely tried, and the struggle seems likely to grow in the second season.
Unlike Pope, the "Jennings" are motivated to live a double life for decades because they believe there is something better and more pure about their Soviet homeland, something worth their loyalty. They serve not people, but the Soviet Union and its ideology. And so even when individual people cause them trouble, they remain loyal. There is no room for disagreement.
The only characters on Scandal who display this kind of loyalty are Pope's associates, who are unswervingly loyal to Pope through thick and thin. In the first season, we discover early on that this is because Pope has rescued each of them—from imprisonment, from abuse, from homelessness. And so, for them, doing Pope's work is not about wearing the white hat at all. They could care less about doing something "good." Rather, they're unquestioningly loyal to the one who saved them, which means they can torture and lie and cheat as long as it serves Pope's ends.
Scandal's many plotlines and twists give us this conflict again and again: is it best to choose the right, or does making the choice make it right? And because its characters are both the most powerful public figures on the planet and are intensely vulnerable to hurt from those whom they love, they are different than the same set of characters on House of Cards, who care for nobody and nothing. (Cyrus Beene, the Scandal president's chief of staff, most closely approximates Frank Underwood, but is starting to come apart at the seams.) Whatever its weaknesses as art (not to mention moral lessons to live by), Scandal does give its viewers real humans.
Television seems to imply these days that there are two choices in politics: be idealistic, and therefore irrelevant and excluded or used by the powerful (like Scandal's U.S. Attorney or House of Cards' many casualties or The Newsroom's news anchor or, perhaps, The Americans' Jennings); or be a self-interested pragmatist and pursue your own good, no matter who gets in your way, without regard for anything like a moral code. At present, there's little room in television dramas for anything like, for instance, proximate justice.
Except in one place: NBC's Parks & Recreation (recently renewed for its seventh season), a show that takes our national political shenanigans and brings them down to small-town Indiana municipal politics. On this show, a progressive (Leslie Knope), a hardline libertarian (Ron Swanson), an economic conservative (Ben Wyatt), and a host of other characters are not only coworkers: they are friends, people who love and respect one another, even when they disagree. Again and again, they are forced to work together and overcome their differences—to come up with good options—in order to serve the (frequently ungrateful) people of Pawnee. The only bad guys on Parks & Recreation are people like Councilman Jamm and the folks who own Sweetums, who serve only their own political and personal gain.
That kind of cooperation and pursuit of what some have called proximate justice makes for good comedy. It might not make for great drama. But it's worth balancing out our dark political imagination, in which the powerful win because they have the biggest bulldozers and those who would do good succumb over and over, with a reminder that there aren't just two options. The struggle in Washington may be more about pragmatism vs. idealism than it is about right vs. left, but let's not imagine that's all we have.
Alissa Wilkinson is chief film critic at Christianity Today, assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College, and editor of QIdeas.org. She tweets at @alissamarie.