Culture Spice: Drama Matters !

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by Yon Walls, 2014

As the English have known for eons (oh, beloved Shakespeare) and the Greeks and Romans knew as well, replicating one’s cultural images in one’s best likeness that provokes thought and questions about how we relate, is what good drama is all about. It’s also about exploring our perceptions through the refraction of fictional characters and archetypal situations that attract us. The transcendence of emotional truth as rendered by the artists who create and play out exceptional drama, is what all cultures need to better understand the human condition. When time allows from our busyness, good drama does matter.

Recent episodes of the television prime-time drama Scandal, is an example of exceptional drama that galvanizes discussion of national questions and cultural turning points. Personally, as an avid PBS member for many years who rarely watches network television (I’m a Downton Abby follower as well), this network drama has captured my attention because it does more than entertain. Yet, its entertaining at a running pace too. How much can be packed into just an hour format?

Categorized as a political thriller, within weeks of its premiere the drama has captured millions of viewers– viewers on the edge of their chaise lounges, glued to their smart-phones or on U-tube awaiting the next episode. It’s got everything we would expect of a prime- time television drama: characters that look like real life; in a workplace, a living room or a public indoor/outdoor setting. But, this drama offers something more. It’s great writing on the pulse! Although we sometimes get lines on the level of soap opera, we know and connect with the characters because of the what and the way they speak in context and the actors who bring them to life who know their craft and give their bodies.

Writer and creator of the long running television series Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes has done it again (helped by an incredibly imaginative group of co- writers), but perhaps even better. It’s a new era– truly the post Obama re-election era of; everything at stake, everything to gain or lose. The characters created by Rhimes set in urban Washington, DC in the White House and a Public Relations firm, resonate at a high and subtle pitch current issues facing our nation and the Washington Institution that’s testing the nation’s trust on all levels of leadership. Simply stated, this drama turns everything on its head, just like current real world politics.

The central characters are diverse and seem to represent real America. There’s also delicious wardrobes, home and office beautifully textured and light-filled historical,  retro and i-kea like interiors that offer escapism at it’s best! There’s also the relevant themes of out of control gun violence, domestic violence and corporate violence. There’s a show of the fierce reliance and relation of characters to all aspects of internet and cell phone technology; how we can see almost anything we want to see instantly and simultaneously, while holding personal and national secrets so critical, that to reveal them changes lives. Plays true like a real most recent NPR or BBC news broadcast!

The drama also challenges the viewer’s assumption about everyday government leadership and mostly speaks to the human side of powerful people who balance the joys, complications and tragedies of their everyday lives while looking to do the right thing or not, for the good of the nation. At the center of the drama is a unforgettable illicit love story between the President of the United States and his former Communications Director. Their love breaks all the rules and seems to speak to a new post- modern historical and cultural realization; that government institutions must prevail for the greater good and embrace the human truth, that the powerful and the least powerful are always flawed but yet must strive for the better good to transform the society in which we all live. This good is the makings of America. Here also, maybe television drama serves as a seminar in global ethics.

Perhaps one of the most important recent scenes between the character Fitzgerald Grant who plays the President (Tony Goldwyn) and Olivia Pope who plays his former Communications Director (Kerry Washington) is when they both share, touch and marvel at a copy of the original Constitution. Not only does it affirm and bind the love they feel for each other, but speaks to a larger historical point seemingly so relevant now as Grant speaks to Olivia about the meaning of the Constitution in reference to its beginning words; We the People. “that’s everything,” he considers as Olivia responds; “it’s a new world.” Surely with the current protracted impasse in Washington with our real President and Congress, perhaps the Constitution is the prevailing rudder that will get the nation through a historically miraculous and difficult time. There have been others, yet this one seems different as in many ways it really is, a new world.

Also, in light of the national conversation about the legalization of marriage between couples of the same sex, the drama explores same sex couples and their right to parenthood. In the drama’s winter finale,two lovers Cyrus Beene (played by Jeff Perry)and James Novak,(his husband played by Dan Bucatinsky),celebrate a long awaited baby for adoption. This is a topic conversation Rhimes began in Grey’s Anatomy and is a national topic that will ultimately challenge everything the nation believes itself to be.

So, as the country braces itself for now the unexpected; the weekly state of the economy, hope reaffirmed through the reelection of a President, a world in shift and conflict, thoughtful art rises to the occasion. Perhaps distinct from any law not legislated and any new corruption revealed at the highest levels of government, the nation’s citizens will somehow prevail and set new ground for a brighter American future. In the meanwhile, Scandal is a drama worth watching that asks far more questions than provides answers. It’s a start and smart telly as the British might say.

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