Thursday, November 14, 2013

The First In a Series...

Unlike screenplays, for which any number of books exists on the subject of structure, there is no such structural paradigm for one-hour television dramas. The purpose of my analysis, therefore, is to understand how a dramatic television series can be structured by examining one particular show, with the goal of understanding how storylines are introduced, developed and interwoven within the framework of an episode and over a season. I have chosen Scandal because it’s a regular broadcast television show (ABC) with excellent writing and high production values equal to a cable television series. I also respect that the show runner, Shonda Rhimes, is a woman in a predominantly male business. Also, because it’s on broadcast television, there is no profanity or nudity or any other shock factors that may contribute to the popularity of certain cable shows, certainly among my favorites such as House of Lies, True Blood, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Californication. It’s my conclusion, then, that the popularity of Scandal, now in its fourth season, can be attributed to its story, with kudos, of course, to casting, acting, directing, etc.

Having conducted a study over a number of years, Dr. Stanley Williams, in his book The Moral Premise, details how a moral premise is vital for the success of a film. In other words, story alone is not enough to succeed. I am curious to see whether this holds true for television and, as such, aim to identify the moral premise of Scandal and to see how it is upheld within each show and over a season. Since broadcast television is also more vulnerable to viewing statistics than cable TV, I am also interested to see whether there’s a correlation between the show’s popularity and its adherence to its premise. Does a show’s audience drop off when its viewers don’t get what they expected to tune into? And, vice versa, does fulfilling audience expectation boost viewership. This might prove to be a bit of a challenge, but with all the analyses and reporting available on the Internet I hope to prevail. So, without further ado!

Scandal Pilot: Sweet Baby – Storyline & Structure 

The opening scene is fast paced, fast-talking, and appears that two people are meeting on a blind date in a crowded bar. The quick cuts and directing technique contribute to a sense of confusion and intrigue. We want to know what is going on, especially since one of the characters is as in the dark as we are. In The Moral Premise, Stanley Williams refers to this as suturing, the technique of creating identification with the audience. The character Quinn is a baby-faced young woman, a nice person, we learn, because her friend set up the date and she wouldn’t be rude enough to stand someone up. Harrison, the handsome, African American in the expensive suit, who’s been doing all the fast talking countering her ‘I can’t stays’ announces that it’s not a date. It’s a job interview. In fact, it’s not even that because Quinn is already hired. Quinn insists she didn’t apply for a job. Harrison continues to exemplify his character’s art of persuasion, and when he mentions that the job is with Olivia Pope & Associates, Quinn is suddenly interested. Hence, it’s established that people, or at least these two people, are in awe of Olivia Pope, and Quinn wants the job; she too wants to be “a gladiator in a suit.” The scene lasts approximately one minute.

Cut to: A man and a woman in a freight elevator. Stephen, “We’re going to get killed.” The stunning African American woman in a white trench coat is Olivia Pope. She is cool, collected and white clothing is her trademark. In fact, we will see that when her own morality is in doubt, the clothes she wears will be gray. Right now, her focus is on convincing Stephen that he should propose to his girlfriend, Georgia. Stephen’s concern is how they’re going to get out alive, especially since they don’t have the money they promised to deliver – they’re three million dollars short. Olivia and Stephen walk out of the elevator into an empty high-rise. This is a nice choice that amplifies the isolation and sense of danger while minimizing the production budget for an additional set. Olivia hands over the money in exchange for a cardboard box and tells the Ukranian men why they’re going to accept the financial short fall and do exactly as she says. Olivia walks out, followed by Stephen, who says, “I love this job.” The scene lasts a minute.

The titles conclude with: Written by Shonda Rhimes.

Harrison leads Quinn through the lavish offices of Olivia Pope & Associates, and in short shrift introduces the team: Huck, the tech guy, ex-CIA; Abby the investigator and Stephen the litigator; and then Olivia, who opens the cardboard box to reveal its precious contents. Surprise! It’s a baby returned to its parents; another satisfied client. And while Olivia reveals her lack of domesticity, she also reveals her soft underpinning. The firm’s purpose is then explained to Quinn – although they’re lawyers, it’s not a law firm; they manage crises, save reputations. Of note, is that the dialogue continues to be fast and slick. If you’re not listening carefully, you never know what you might miss. This may be one of the attractions of this show – it’s not the boob tube any more.

Five minutes into the show and a new problem arrives in the form of Sully St. James, a war hero, who walks in covered with the blood of his murdered girlfriend. We go to commercial. Originally, I had identified this as the end of the first act, but since television characters are revealed in relation to one another and gain depth rather than undergo a change, I will instead call this a ‘hook’ assuming that when we go to commercial viewers will stick around to see what happens.

Abby, Stephen and Huck give their opinions on why they shouldn’t take on the new client. Olivia overrules them saying that her gut tells her everything she needs to know. They take on Sully’s case and the team kicks into gear. They initiate their process: interview the client and watch him to decide who he is. Olivia tells Sully that she sets the rules and warns him, “Do not lie.”

The show uses a series of still SHOTS of Washington DC accompanied by the sound effects of an old-fashioned camera SNAPPING as a device to ‘get across town’, thus maintaining story momentum while reducing production costs. This takes Olivia to the home of David Rosen, the Assistant U.S. Attorney. He’s not too thrilled about being awoken in the middle of the night, but it’s clear that the two have history and mutual respect, even if they’re not exactly friends. Olivia asks for 48 hours before he arrests her client, the war hero. After some back and forth, she outlines the consequences of not following her demands. He accedes and she has a deadline of 24 hours. The race is on (12+/- minute mark) and the team goes into action: Abby at the crime scene; Stephen at the morgue; Harrison explaining to Quinn that their goal is to fix the problem, not solve the crime – they are “gladiators in suits.” Olivia receives a phone call and walks out. While it’s too tedious to recount each scene in which Olivia walks in and/or walks out in this blog, it is one of the items that Ellen Sandler recommends analyzing in The TV Writer’s Workbook and of which I keep note in my Excel spreadsheet. As she leaves the office, she again admonishes Stephen to propose, “It’s the normal thing to do.” When it’s pointed out that she never dates, Olivia retorts, “I’m not normal.”

In the following montage we see the characters exhibit their personalities/talents to handle the situation i.e. Abby, the bitch, threatens the detective at the crime scene in order to get photographs while Stephen, the ladies man, uses his charms at the morgue to get an expedited examiner’s report. What makes these characters complex is that we will see Abby’s romantic soft spot and Stephen’s insecurity when it coms to making a life-long commitment.

Olivia meets with a new character in the park. This is Cyrus Beene, a balding middle-aged man with watery blue eyes that can ignite fires when his wrath is awoken. He is the White House Chief of Staff, there to ask Olivia for a favor; there’s a problem that only she can fix. Olivia refuses, “I don’t work for him any more.” We learn that ‘him’ is the President of the United States. Olivia is turning down the president… wow!

Two scenes later, Olivia arrives at Camp David. Before she meets the president, she again meets with Cyrus who tells her that ‘things’ are not like they were during the election; the president and first lady’s marriage is stronger than ever. Then we meet the first lady, Mellie, who asks Olivia if she’s dating. Next, Olivia is walking with Fitz, the president; Cyrus, and two secret service men. Olivia is advised of the problem: an intern is claiming she had sex with the president. The president says that he would never do something like that; he “loves only one woman.” Olivia concedes, “I’ll handle it. Consider it handled.” This is Olivia’s catch phrase, (along with ‘trusting her gut’) one of the items that I will monitor along with Harrison’s catch phrase, “gladiators in suits.” We’ve yet to see what phrases are particular to the other characters. Meanwhile, Cyrus is thrilled that, “the team is back together again,” revealing that this may be his raison d’etre.

Accompanied by Quinn as a witness, Olivia approaches Amanda, the intern, in the park and presents her with the facts and the inevitable consequences if she pursues her planned course of action. Quinn is horrified. As the season progresses, Quinn is integrated with the team and we forget about her mysterious beginnings, but they will return to close the last episode of the season in a shocking way. As Olivia walks away, she makes a call, “It’s handled” and back at the office Quinn is in the bathroom crying. Huck tells her, “No crying.” Crying isn’t allowed. And while he’s telling Quinn, “We all have a story. You have to believe that your life has meaning,” we get the sense that this is Huck’s motivation – to find the meaning of his life. He concludes with “Everyone in this office needs fixing,” but he doesn’t do it in a harsh way. He is clearly a deep and damaged soul and it is this scene that starts the relationship between Huck and Quinn that will build and bond them.

The accusations against the president hit the news. On television, the president and Cyrus are walking across the White House lawn. Olivia calls Cyrus, who hands the phone to the president. Olivia asks him pointedly, did you buy Amanda that dog? He denies it. She asks him to turn his head slightly so that she can look into his eyes. This is a variation on what will be many looks they share privately across crowded rooms. Olivia believes him.

Olivia presents a tray of diamond rings for Stephen to pick from. She has also made dinner reservations for the event.

Amanda shows up at Olivia’s office, followed by David Rosen to arrest Sully. Olivia sends Amanda away; makes Rosen wait for the remaining 40 minutes she has allotted. Abby and Stephen are trying to find an alibi for Sully. They return triumphant. They have camera footage from a bank that caught Sully on tape greeting his lover outside a bar. Sully refuses to use the alibi; he is a hero, he respects the uniform, he cannot be gay. Harrison, Abby, Stephen and Olivia follow him to the police station. Meanwhile Quinn receives a call. She calls Olivia.

Since it’s after hours, the arraignment won’t be until morning. Olivia leaves the team to convince Sully to do the right thing. Stephen, however, is expected at the restaurant. Abby tells him to go, “to get down on one knee. Girls like that.” So, Abby isn’t quite the bitch we are lead to believe.

At the hospital, Quinn informs Olivia that Amanda tried to commit suicide by slashing her wrists. Quinn also describes Amanda’s ramblings about how the president called her “Sweet baby.” Olivia is visually shocked.

Olivia storms into the Oval Office, “Where is he?” The president appears, with Cyrus asking if this can’t wait since the president has to toast the President of France in ten minutes. That the president, Fitz, chooses Olivia over his duties says a lot. Olivia lets loose accusing him of making a fool of her, how her feelings for him clouded her judgment, made her mistake her gut. She slaps his face. He tells her he love her, kisses her. Cyrus barges in, “I can hear the screaming out there.” Cyrus is shocked, unaware of the relationship between the president and Olivia. Olivia storms out.

At the restaurant, Stephen is hiding in the coat closet when Olivia appears. She convinces him that he must propose, it’s the right thing; she knows it in her gut. Stephen approaches Georgia sitting at a table in the restaurant and gets down on one knee. Olivia sinks back into the coat closet, wipes a tear from her eye.

At the police station, Olivia gives Sully a powerful speech. She saw the tape, she saw them kiss, she knows that Sully loves that man. She knows what it’s like to keep a secret for a long time. “Who you love shouldn’t have to be a secret.” And this, I believe, is the premise of the show: A person should be allowed to be themselves and love openly, because such secrets lead to scandals.

In the end, Sully makes a statement to the press on television announcing that he’s proud to have fought for his country; he’s proud to have been injured for his country; and he’s proud to have been a gay man who fought for his country. Quinn is confused… the killer wasn’t caught. “I thought Olivia was one of the good guys.” Harrison tells her that, “Olivia isn’t one of the good guys. She is the best guy. What are we?” Quinn answers, “Gladiators in suits.”

Cyrus appears. The president wants to see Olivia. The fact that Cyrus never knew about their affair reveals that the president does not, indeed, tell Cyrus everything. This is an important point. Olivia reveals that she has a new client, Amanda.

The show finishes with a close-up on Olivia’s face - another suturing technique.


In this pilot episode Shonda Rhimes has interwoven so much depth and complexity into her characters. She has also created the requisite family necessary for audience identification that makes people want to tune in week after week per Tony Bicât in Creative TV Writing (2007).  Each is unique in their physicality, personality and talents – the backstories will come later.
  • Abby Whelan (Caucasian) is a tall, slim, self-assured, scathing, cynical red-head.
  • Quinn Perkins (Caucasian) is a smart, naïve, slightly-plump people-pleaser brunette.
  • Huck (Hispanic) is a dark horse, gentle-spoken, technical genius, extremely loyal, lost soul.
  • Harrison Wright (African American) is the smooth talking, sharp dressing, legal mind, who plays Olivia’s second in command.
  • Stephen Finch (Caucasian) is tall, smart and “pretty,” and as thus seems almost decorative. He will not appear after the first season.
The environment in which they work, technically is Washington DC, but much of the action takes place in the White House, which is where we have our second family:
  • President Fitzgerald Grant, tall, handsome, authoritative, is believably presidential.
  • First Lady Mellie Grant, a Southern beauty, soft, elegant, conservative, looks the part and her inner intelligence and ambition will be revealed over time.
  • Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene, with his soft eyes, soft body and balding pate, looks like the perfect goffer for the president, but his superior intelligence, unmitigated ambition and surprising personal life will be revealed over time.  
  • David Rosen, the Assistant US Attorney, is the glue between the two camps. His innate sense of truth, righteousness and justice will be tested.  
  • Olivia Pope (African American) is absolute perfection - beautiful, intelligent, decisive, fiercely loyal, beloved and admired by all and has an impeccable reputation and powerful connections. Other than the fact that she was the president’s mistress, she’s beyond reproach. How’s that for an interesting dichotomy?
According to Tony Bicât, it is paramount that the protagonist becomes an ‘enemy’ within their work place, as in the Helen Mirren vehicle Prime Suspect and Luther in which Idris Elba plays detective John Luther. We shall see if and how this comes in to play for Olivia Pope in Scandal.

Another TV trope is the “will they get together?” storyline. This is also at play in Scandal and will be interesting to see how Shonda Rhimes and her team keep the cat and mouse game alive over seasons.


Our protagonist is established as a force to be reckoned with. We are introduced to all the key players. We can see their diverse personalities at work and – this is important – in action, not as talking heads. That everyone seems to be in constant motion adds to the show’s fast pace. The client’s problem is an allegory for what’s going on in the real story which is, in fact, a story of forbidden love between a man and a woman.