It was a fairly meaningless coincidence that last night's season premiere of "Scandal," the hit soap opera assaying a Grand Guignol Washington, came on the same day as a major emergency in the nation's capital, and in the midst of a government shutdown. That didn't stop Twitter from lighting up with overexcited fans of the show and its omnicompetent heroine, Olivia Pope.
This would be a job for Olivia Pope -- were she real. And given that "Scandal" has over its run featured a conspiracy to rig the presidential election and the murder of a Supreme Court justice by the president, the desire on the part of its fans to tie it into real life seems especially bizarre. This show is about as far removed from our world as to be laughable, not least because the threats on "Scandal" tend to be about interpersonal dramas, not national security.
More than anything, comparing the national scene to "Scandal" is incoherent; unlike "The West Wing" (a show with plenty of faults), it uses government as a means to riff on soap conventions and on the inner lives of a lovestruck couple, the way "Grey's Anatomy" (a show by the same creator) uses medicine. Olivia Pope is called in to fix rumored extramarital affairs and the like, not to avert gunshots in Washington or the government shutdown. In "Scandal," Salon's critic Neil Drumming detected "a twisted sort of optimism" -- a fundamental presumption that despite a chaotic system run by nightmare people, "everyone can be fixed — even if that requires a lot of breaking."
Recently, Kerry Washington (who plays Pope) was for some reason asked what her character would do about the shutdown and, to her credit, she noted that the actual White House would work -- and, in real life, is working -- on the issue:
I don't know what Olivia would do, but I think in Olivia's world [White House chief of staff] Cyrus would have handled it way before she would have to get involved… I think our president is doing an extraordinary job and I think its really unfortunate that so many people are without work right now at a time where a lot of people can't afford it, and I wish that Congress can be more cooperative.
It's this litany of grim facts that makes the fantasy of "Scandal" so appealing. Fantastical, unbelievable scenarios are presented and, sooner or later, fixed, related more often to sex than to, say, national healthcare or the budget. The president is a Republican on the show, but so moderate (at least socially) that his particular policies affect the world not a whit; a government scandal wouldn't happen on "Scandal" because it's impossible to imagine the series keeping its focus on public policy long enough to let things go that far. How nice it'd be if all problems were tied to the hearts and other anatomy of a few politicians in Washington! It's not that the less widely watched cable drama "Homeland" is so terribly realistic, either, but its Washington -- beset constantly by terror threats and uncertain how to move forward after a years-long war of attrition -- at least rhymes with real concerns.
But those aren't comforting. An avenging angel who can swoop in really is -- even if such fantasies necessarily reduce real-world crises to the level of the problem of the week. The gut-level uncertainty evoked by a shootout outside the U.S. Capitol should give rise to many feelings and, perhaps, policy solutions. While everyone's free to do whatever they want, the instantaneous leap to joking about an unrelated TV show and how much you like it feels like the worst sort of escapism.