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TV Politics and Proximate Justice
Kerry Washington in 'Scandal'

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).

Tony Goldwyn and Kerry Washington in 'Scandal'

Tony Goldwyn and Kerry Washington in 'Scandal'

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.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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TV Politics and Proximate Justice