Remember the early, innocent days of Scandal? Back when it was merely about D.C. flack Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) having a secret affair with the president? That already seems like a long time ago, before Scandal exploded into a perfect weekly orgy of political corruption and sex and murder. And that’s just the president. Scandal zooms through preposterous plot twists fast enough to make Homeland look like The West Wing. Claire Danes would be, by my math, the 12th-craziest person on this show.
President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) is a man who starts his day guzzling whiskey in the shower and ends it by visiting a sick friend in the hospital, then killing her with his bare hands. Not that Olivia can stop banging him, of course. At a christening for his chief of staff’s baby, they have extremely rough sex in a closet. After they slap, spit, moan and zip up, the leader of the free world tells her, “I may not be able to control my erections around you, but that does not mean I want you. We are done.” Happy birthday, Mr. President!
It sounds bizarre, but that’s par for the course on Scandal, which is why it’s become a sensation in its second season. These lurid prime-time soaps never sell out to sanity, whether they go for heartland nobility (Nashville) or post-Bravo camp giggles (Revenge). David Sedaris once summed up the daytime-soap-opera code as “Nobody dies on a Wednesday,” and the prime-time version has similar rules. You don’t skip 10 months between episodes. You don’t cram six cliffhangers into one week. But Scandal takes all the rules of this insane genre and then breaks them in the most insane possible way.
The D.C. characters here divide into two types we could generally classify as “whoring, assassinating liars” and “lying, thieving whore-sassins.” Olivia Pope used to be the president’s press secretary, but she went into private practice so she could bone him on her own time. The president gets shot in the head in the middle of a rigged voting-machine conspiracy. He recovers to kill his assassin personally, right after the first lady delivers their baby. These people steal elections. They flout the Constitution. They refer to a Supreme Court justice of the other party as “a left-wing, baby-killing, homosexual-loving, godless creature such as yourself.” As one of the political conspirators tells a citizen, “Let’s just say that we did things. Things that would make it hard for you to sing the National Anthem and mean it.”
Scandal dispenses with the usual blather about how politicians are trying to serve the country they love. There are no speeches about doing the wrong things for the right reasons. These people only do the right thing because it brings them closer to the next wrong thing. They just can’t control their erections for America.
Especially not the women. What makes Scandal so entertaining and fresh is the array of brilliantly monstrous females. Bellamy Young’s Mellie is without question the most badass first lady in TV history. She reminds me of the scary heroine of Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novel Gone Girl – some of her madwoman speeches could be straight from the book. She’s devoted to her need to be right. She keeps score, she juggles grudges and she thinks long-term when it comes to revenge. The president is a much worse human being, but he’s milquetoast compared to Mellie. “Fitz? I found him,” she snarls. “I made him. He exists because I say he exists.” She means it. She is terrifying. And in Scandal‘s D.C., she has plenty of company.
This story is from the March 14th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.