by Yon Walls. 2017
I love and follow great film and television! Any great society needs it. Remember your first time at the movies (mostly when big screen film houses were in vogue) watching a movie with 3-D glasses? Remember the thrill of feeling like you were in the film and in the audience too– that you were one of the characters experiencing a scene? This way of experiencing an alternate reality is still in vogue as almost any serious X-box or online Video Gamer would admit. And maybe a television drama has taken this earthly pleasure in another direction in which an avid lay television viewer of a particular dramatic production, can link to an actual production team through social media and chime in on set, costume design and writing rooms by lead creators– professionals who know their business and their craft.
Well, it could go something like that as the avid followers of the television drama Scandal (that first aired in April of 2012) have illustrated by their live tweeting nights with the drama’s key characters and creators almost since the show’s beginning; perpetual tweets about the drama’s unfolding and tweets from writers and the writerly about the drama’s narrative itself and how characters should develop and why. It’s really a new television audience participation phenomenon thanks to the generous writerly heart and vision of writer and producer Shonda Rhimes, the award-winning sensitive and subtle characterization of Olivia Pope played by Kerry Washington and the intelligent and fascinating role of Fitzgerald Grant played by Tony Goldwyn.
There’s also the wonderful, compelling and award-wining work of Jeff Perry (Cyrus) Joe Morton (Rowan), Gulliermo Diaz (Huck), Scott Foley (Jake), Darby Stanchfield (Abby), Bellamy Young (Mellie), Katie Lowes (Quinn) and Cornelius Smith Jr. (Marcus) and George Newman (Charlie). And, I have to admit I love watching the drama! As an avid public television and film viewer, novelist and former College English Literature Instructor, I rarely watch network television anymore. But tuning in on Thursday nights on ABC to watch this production, has been an inspiration and at times technically informing about creative writing, personal art therapy and network television worth watching with a pulse on the times as a kind of collective dream.
As the drama is now completing it’s 7th and final season, a look at the drama’s cultural impact and platform for social issues is also in order.Unlike any television drama that I’ve watched in recent or not so recent history, has this drama had it say and has said much about various political and social ills in American culture today– right this minute! Equipped with the fluency of social media (Twitter and Instagram) and news (real news) that’s just as fluent and writer’s who do their research, the drama has presented topics of the day that’s been thought-provoking and on page with the American public. The Production writing team with creator Shonda Rhimes, has tackled the topics of elite insider White House political corruption (pre and post Obama era) political secrecy, constitutional crisis, torture, child abuse, inter-racial relationships, sexual taboos, sexual harassment, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, abusive military culture, domestic & international terrorism, police brutality, a first woman President of the United States and recently in Season 7, Episode 3 the topic of a national reporting of African-American missing girls. All of these topics explored are firmly rooted in the American citizen and media psyche and our social and political reality and landscape today.
With that said, the drama has surely been a dramatic platform on various serious social and political issues, while revolving around the personal and White House political journey of the central female character Olivia Pope, a role written specifically for an African American woman. The drama is based on the character Judy Smith, the actual Washington insider and public relations fixer for Monica Lowensky during the Clinton administration. This fact really fueled the show’s debut that captured over 8 million viewers according to the Nielsen rating. Rhimes’s show isn’t the only Television production establishing platforms through writing that mirrors the country’s problems, but Rhimes as the first African American woman writer to land a job writing for mainstream network television is key to understanding this historical television pivot point as representing a historical shift. Undoubtedly too our current post- Obama political climate places creative fictional drama in context of what historically it’s been at its best; a way for the the working class and minorities to see, place and see themselves and to respond in actual reality to questions that are uncomfortable and most often difficult about the culture they live in.
So, what makes the drama so compelling, smart and informative for most viewers? By the use of social media the cast has created a following who are creatively invested in the drama’s narrative as artistic food and as social agency represented by the lead female character Olivia Pope, genius Washington fixer and her love interest, a President (and now former) President of the United States, Fitzgerald Grant. From the start the narrative has the ingredients for serving up volatile social issues through its weekly episodic themes. In addition the key relational dynamics between Olivia and Fitz fuel the narrative tension as the interracial couple battle their demons while their audience hopes for their redemption by admission of true love and life together forever after. In reality it can and does happen! Like the timeless phrase, Once Upon A Time, an identifiable or imagined narrative is the story gene that cultures have pursued since ancient times. Humans need stories and they need stories that make sense of the often chaotic and miserable conditions they create for themselves and the society they live. They also need entertainment and pure escapism!
In a recent response to a Scandal viewer tweet, asking if power and control are more important than being human (related to the crisis of power for Olivia Pope and Mellie Grant played by Bellamy Young as the newly elected first woman president in the drama), the drama’s lead Tony Goldwyn tweets in response that: “Humanity is overrated.” It seems that Goldwyn’s remark points to a key reality; that in this tumultuous, incompetent real White House and congressional political climate, crisis of mass public shootings and the now ongoing sexual harassment scandals (that’s become commonplace for everyday Americans), the virtues of post-modern human-ness are questionable. Yet despite it all, if the real world doesn’t work out and is uncertain, television and film viewers need something to work out, something to be redeemed, some collective dream to be realized that’s cohesive, sober and honest. And in the case of this dramatic narrative in time, Olivia and Fitz are it and any other narrative that poses critical questions about human societies and outcomes we can learn from and live with.
And too, a central question for this narrative that has impacted the culture for half a decade feeding pop culture and on the level of serious art and writers with a mission, Scandal has delivered strong writing and embodied roles again and again. And unfortunately as most Americans are living with the political and social vacuum created by the end of the Obama era, the viewing audience wants the underdogs, the politically powerless or socially progressive and the socially invisible to win this narrative!! And who are those in the audience who have been the lay and learned arbiters of culture reflected in this narrative? A few like myself who have come to understand the power of any art form to transform something into its better self for the greater good and understanding of true democracy. And I’m not alone. Expert critics when really on the pulse give the viewing pubic a look at Arts at its best. The rest is mystery and the gut experience of viewers!
Taking a breath, a little too much said about one drama? This drama and other television narratives are doing important social work as well. Sitcoms like Blackish and Grey’s Anatomy (another of Shonda Rhime’s mega-creations) and How to Get Away with Murder staring the fabulous Viola Davis should be noted. And mega series like Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Greenleaf and Queen Sugar are in the ingredients for a changing social culture that is more inclusive, diverse and socially responsible. Even long-running cult series like The Walking Dead are exploring social issues of the day. Many of the themes are existential. Yet all these narratives represent a trend that’s here to stay as audiences want their say and feelings and the sensation that they too have a voice, recognize a truth, seek a new way to look at a not so new social or political problem.
Speaking of social media, tweeting a thought, idea or a narrative what if, is an activity of the ages! Most all human societies and groups have needed to be of part a story that speaks to them, challenges them and mostly gives them agency when only the very powerful can afford to participate and shape narratives that impact lives for not so good causes. A good example would be the American Tobacco industry that for over 60 years has created its ongoing narrative that has taken millions of lives by lung cancer. Yes, dramatic viewing on the level of sheer entertainment is wish fulfillment, yet on the level of psychological recognition, Scandal is a drama that is a wish fulfillment that transcends a hard working cast, crew, writers and a fictional couple that off the set care deeply about social causes and people who lead them. Washington (Olivia Pope) and Goldwyn (Fitzgerald Grant) have tackled the issues of financial abuse of women and criminal justice reform for the innocent off the set that has raised awareness and increased public action.
The wish? That as members of a democratic populace we can decide what is best for the outcome of any story, especially if it tells the story of those who are least heard, seen or appreciated as storytellers. Narratives that are rich with truth and are useful in our effort to be more human. Drama Matters and so do those who enact the story and those who witness it. And, the viewers of this drama called Scandal (gladiators as many call themselves), and lay critics, writers, thinkers, artists and people in the industry have a sense, as they have logged on for years for live tweets with the cast and or just followed the narrative from week to week and chimed in, that this is the future of network television and series dramatic features through Netflix and other outlets. Viewers want to be part of the story– joining through social media with the narrative in progress and weighing in on the outcome of the narratives for the sake of the better outcome or lessons learned about the least expected outcome. It’s surely good for growing new brain connections, is a great way to keep audiences thinking and engaged, narrative-making and story-telling alive and thriving for generations to come.