Friday, January 10, 2014

Grant: For the People - Scandal, Season One Finale

And to the concluding episode of Scandal’s season one with new Aristotleian insight!

We open with Quinn entering Gideon’s apartment, glee-filled with the friendliness of the neighborhood bagel shop’s staff.  Upon seeing Gideon bleeding on the floor, she runs to his aid and… does the wrong thing!  The scissors, which had been stemming the blood flow from his carteroid, now removed allow the blood to run free.  Quinn, who assures him that everything will be okay, clearly didn’t learn not to make false promises.  We have two tragedies her – Gideon’s death and Quinn’s loss.  Did they both bring it upon themselves by their actions?  Yes.

Cut to the White House and Morris, the security checkpoint guard, jovially tells Billy that he was signed in two hours ago.  Billy, in a trance, makes it to his desk, turns with shaking hands to type on his computer.

Back at Gideon’s, Quinn standing frozen with a phone in her bloody hand thanks Olivia (dressed all in white) for coming.  Maybe she should have called the police, but… Olivia assures Quinn that calling her was the right thing to do and they can’t call the police.  Why not?  “Because if we call the police, they’ll find out who you really are.”  Surprise!

At the White House, Cyrus walks in on Fitz, “James wants to adopt an Ethiopian baby,” and proceeds to deliver one of his brilliant signature speeches outlining why a baby changes everything and, until last night, the whole discussion was off the table.  However, since he had gone looking for the President of the United States and the President was nowhere to be found, was in fact at his girlfriends… Fitz responds, “Here it comes, Cyrus the Holy.” 

Cyrus proceeds to compare Fitz’s relationship with Olivia to a high-school romance, his behavior to that of an adolescent teen.  Fitz orders Cyrus out of his office.  When he doesn’t leave, Fitz heads toward the door and Cyrus unleashes true venom asking, “Do you know what I gave up to put you in office… the ends that I’ve gone to? Fitz says, “I am so sick of you saying you put me in the White House.  I got myself elected.”  This sentence lays the groundwork for next season’s through-line that, if the truth were exposed, would threaten the presidency; and replaces the Amanda Tanner through-line.  When Cyrus calls Fitz “a fly-boy with a good hairline and a pushy dad,” we also get insight into Fitz’s backstory.   Fitz doesn’t let it end there; he puts the blame on Cyrus for introducing him to Olivia.  Hence, we see that Cyrus’ misfortune is his own fault.

An aide interrupts their argument with news about a Cult standoff in Georgia, which sounds exactly like the Waco cult compound shoot-out.  Here’s another example of an indelible real-life situation that wrenches the gut of anyone who lived through 50 days of media coverage that ended in the deaths of 76 people.

At Gideon’s, the team is assembled and debating calling the police.  This is the first time we see them at odds with Olivia, on the verge of mutiny.  Olivia confesses that Quinn isn’t Quinn Perkins.  “Who is she?” “She’s our client.  We clean it.”  Fast forward and the scene is clean; they’re leaving when Olivia asks Huck if they’re ready, which makes it clear that it’s Huck who she relies on first and foremost.  Again, this is laying the groundwork for future episodes.   Huck says, “we’re good.” And they’re all headed for the door when Quinn asks, “What’s happening?”  “We can’t just leave him.”  Stephen gets mad, “You know what we just did for you?” emphasizing the theme of the show, “Sometimes you must sacrifice yourself and your beliefs in order to do what’s best for your – country/family/team.”  Olivia takes pity and makes and anonymous call to the police.

Huck asks who has Gideon’s cell phone.  They have eight minutes before the police will arrive – intensifying the magnitude of the situation and panic.  Oh!

It turns out to be in Gideon’s pocket.  While none of the men are willing to reach into the dead man’s jeans, Abbey doesn’t hesitate.  Again, more insight into what Abbey will and won’t do. 

At the White House, Billy delivers an envelope to Sally.

At Pope Associates, the team is assembled.  Olivia, “Gideon Wallace, what do we know?”  That he figured out who sent Amanda Tanner to sleep with the president.  Going over Gideon’s phone logs, the trail leads to the White House switchboard.   Huck needs three hours to go through everything on Gideon’s computer – another time bomb starts ticking.

Back at the White House, Billy makes his way to the podium, as Sally, sitting across from the president in the cult standoff briefing room, opens the envelope, responds “Holy Cripe.”  It gets the president’s attention.  This is important because it will vindicate Sally when Billy, following his resignation on television, proceeds to go on every talk show in the nation saying that he was going to marry his pregnant girlfriend when he discovered that the president had taken sexual advantage of her.  He has explicit audio tape to prove it.  As Cyrus threatens to have a heart attack running through White House corridors to get to the briefing room, Mellie, leading a tour, is stopped in her tracks when a reporter asks on TV, “How did you find the president’s sex tape.” 

At Pope Associates, the team watches Billy’s shocking charges against POTUS on TV. Little Uh Oh!

Back from commercials:  Mellie, “You are letting Billy Chambers run rough shod over everything we have spent the last 15 years on.”  Fitz refuses to lie.  “Why not?”  Because I’m not you, Mellie.”  Mellie walks out.

Olivia walks past the flurry of media reporting from the White House garden.  Morris greets her, “About time they brought you in.”   

Cyrus tells Olivia that, before bringing her on board, the Vegas odds of Grant winning the presidency were 70:1.   “Do you think we can do it again?”  Olivia, “Or we go down trying.” 

Now we get to see Olivia as she must have been in role at the White House – full spin ahead.   The president clears the room, asks for Cyrus and Olivia to remain.  “I never thought it would be one of our own trying to sink us.”  Another portend of things to come next season!   Olivia sends him to Georgia to do his job, “act presidential.”  An internal flash poll shows approval ratings down, with majority saying president should resign.  Sally, riding her moral high horse, refuses to help.

The team is arguing again when the DA shows up, “wouldn’t be about that crime scene you cleaned up?”  He takes Quinn into custody, Harrison immediately hired on site as her lawyer for one dollar.  Quinn, “No fingerprints, right?” Ouch!

Olivia walks into a washroom where Billy is washing his hands.  “You’re a murderer, Billy.”  “I’m not proud of that.”  Olivia then shows up at the DA’s office and tells the whole story.  DA, “I believe you, oddly enough.”  Olivia, “Then help me.  Put on your white hat and go after Billy Chambers with whatever you can make stick.  Get some justice for Amanda Taylor and Gideon Wallace.”  The DA responds, “No.  I am the law and the law is me.  I might bend it from time to time but I don’t break it for you or anyone else.  Get out of my office before I have you arrested for tampering with a criminal scene.”  The Big Uh Ohhh!

Stellar directing as, in the next scene, the president walks in to frame against the backdrop of the American flag.  “What do we do?  What’s next?”  Cyrus suggests there’s a solution they’re not seeing.  “There is.  I could resign.”  Olivia offers that she can say the sex tape is her.  That way he’s not tied to a girl’s suicide, not perfect but takes care of the impeachment problem.  Cyrus, “So now we have a slutty president problem?”  Fitz, referencing the Clinton scandal says, “Put the country out of its misery.  End it now.”  Cyrus, “Then what?”  Fitz, “We get to be regular people.”  Cyrus storms out, “You can’t be a regular person.  We can’t.  I can’t adopt a baby!”

Olivia, “I’m sorry.”  Fitz, “I’m not.”  They kiss and when Olivia looks to the cameras above, Fitz says, “I don’t care.” Oh No!

Back from commercials:  Olivia walks the White House corridors, a secret smile on her lips as she touches them in memory of their kiss.  She finds Cyrus sitting quietly, admiring a painting of Alexander Hamilton, a brilliant political thinker, he wasn’t president, Washington was, but could Hamilton pick a winner.  “He knew what the country needed when they needed it.  Fitz was born to be a leader, anything less would diminish him and deprive this country.  Some men are not meant to be happy. They are meant to be great.”

Olivia stands in her office; her team looks on.  Stephen, “I got this.”  He closes the door behind him.  “I’ve been screwing around and don’t want to lie any more.  You told me if I tried and failed it was on me.  You were wrong.  I cheated.  It’s on me and it’s on you, too.  You can’t do this.  You can’t have him.”  This harkens back to the speech Olivia gave to Travis’ mother.  She knows what is right.  And here we have the denouement, the undoing of everything we set up in the complication.  Here we also have our heroine undone by her own error in judgment and suffering one of Aristotle’s undeserved misfortunes, “having good things happen, but being unable to enjoy them.”  Olivia, “Normal is overrated.”

She’s back in charge, dishing out orders.  Huck offers to kill Billy, “It’s no problem.”  She says no.  Olivia makes him promise specifically, “Say the words!”

Mellie is preparing to move to Santa Barbara when Olivia arrives.  Mellie then comes into her own, “You let that girl get into his pants!”  They were a team and Mellie did her job, “Why couldn’t you do yours?”

Huck ambushes a defeated, sad-looking Charlie at the park, tells him he has to kill Billy.  He’ll need a suicide note.  It will be good for Charlie’s confidence.  

At the DA’s office, Quinn is being asked why she called Olivia and not the police. 

Back at the White House, Mellie and Olivia have a media plan.  The woman on the sex tape was Mellie.  Mellie will announce she’s pregnant, which means they need to start right away.  Mellie, “Like I always say, if you have a problem, get Olivia Pope on it.  Look a little happier.  We saved your presidency.”

And this little speech brings up the subject of bookmarks, meaning that the final episode is a mirror image of the opening episode, with the characters diametrically opposite where they began. For example, in the Pilot, Fitz cared about what the cameras saw when they kissed; Mellie, though uttering the same words, has the upperhand; Fitz’s presidency, at risk, is now saved.  Mellie leaves.  Fit goes from “You know me,” to “Who are you right now?”  Olivia, “The woman who got you elected.  Now go be the man I voted for.”  The Twist-a-Roo!

It’s the 20/20 interview and Olivia is giving Fitz advice, “Keep your eyes on Mellie during the interview.”  Fitz, “I know how to fake it with my wife.  You taught me well.”

The Pilot opened with the president asking Olivia, at Camp David, to help him; the season finishes with Olivia walking through the security checkpoint handing in her pass.  Morris, watching TV, “You did it again.   When you walk through those gates, the press starts to fall in  line, she secret service gets extra secret, and the problems, they just kinda’ disappear, and when you go back out everyone is breathing a little easier.” 

Sally compliments the president on the TV interview, ‘You and the first lady looked very polished.”  He tells her that it’s not enough, Sally needs to condemn Billy and tell the nation that she supports the president.  Sally tells him that the president has gravely misjudged her and she will not forego the career that she’s built on her strong conservative Christian values.  Fitz then informs her that her 14-year-old daughter had an abortion.  He quotes the bible about throwing stones… Cut to:  Sally on TV announcing that Billy Chambers was a huge disappointment. 

Billy walks into his building apartment where the doorman is watching television.  “What’s all the press today.”  Billy catches Sally as she says, “Billy Chambers is sick in the head.  I hope he gets the help he needs.”  Billy gets into the elevator.  As the doors close, Charlie catches up, steps in.

Cyrus is working in his garden when James asks why, now that the war is over, is a colleague at their door on a Sunday.  “I want a baby, a fat drooling, smooshy baby.”  Of course, we think it’s Olivia.  It’s not.  Charlie appears, “I need to leave town.  You need to wire the rest of the money for the girl.”  Wow.  It was Cyrus after all.

And so here is where we have the issue of our morale premise as laid out by Egri and Williams:  vice does NOT lead to defeat.  Vice, in fact, leads to success; or at least for those who utilize it for a higher purpose.  And therein may lie the rub.  Aristotle points out, “happiness is what every human being wants and it follows that the hero’s pursuit of happiness is of keen interest to an audience.  The pursuit of happiness is so important that Aristotle describes it as our moral obligation.  The ancient Greeks believed that it was every human being’s moral obligation to pursue his or her own happiness, first and foremost, but to do so ethically.  This is virtue.” [Tierno, 2002, p. 76]  By sacrificing his own morals, is Cyrus not virtuous in his defense of what’s best for the president, for the country? 

The DA arrives at Pope Associates with Quinn in tow.  It’s a good thing he ran her fingerprints himself, otherwise a half dozen US agencies would be looking for her.  “I’m breaking the law here.  I don’t break the law.”  Olivia to Quinn, “Do you want to tell them who you are, or should I?” 

And so we start the season with Quinn and we end with Quinn.  Who’s tuning in next season?

Aristotle at Work in Scandal

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but after revisiting Aristotle’s Poetics (with the aid of Michael Tierno) – and this time with a highlighter in hand – I’ve decided that I’m an Aristotleian girl and I believe the writers of Scandal are too.  Here’s why I think so:

Artistotle believed in Complication and Denouement: the incidents before the opening scene and within the drama forming the Complication; and the rest the Denouement.  He also believed that dramatists must depict not merely life but the moral life of a hero, what gets wound up and unravels in the end must concern the hero’s moral conflict that developed during the story’s middle.  

Tierno goes on to explain, “It is through the resolution of the hero’s moral conflict in the denouement that the “theme” of the movie is stated.”  Using the Godfather as an example, he writes, “Sometimes you must sacrifice yourself and your beliefs in order to do what’s best for your family.”  [Tierno, 2002, p.11]  It strikes me that this theme, with modification, applies to Scandal, “Sometimes you must sacrifice yourself in order to do what’s best for your country.”  Does that give me the moral premise that I’ve been searching for or is it merely a “theme”?  In an effort to apply Dr. William’s double-barrel formula, the problem I come up with is, in the case of Scandal  and many of today’s modern heroes is – vice does not lead to failure.  In fact, vice saves many of our characters from failure.  You’ll see what I mean when I discuss the season one finale.

A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious, has magnitude, and is complete in itself. ~ Aristotle

Tierno quotes Alfred Hitchcock to explain Aristotle: if a bomb under a table suddenly explodes out of nowhere in a movie, it’s not a great movie.  The audience needs to know beforehand that a bomb is under the table and is about to explode.  But, we need to know how to make more than just one scene work, more than how to have just one bomb explode.  Doesn’t Scandal have numerous bombs potentially exploding in any given episode - whether it’s the client of the week’s problem or a threat to the presidency?   Notably, the main bomb is planted in the first episode when Olivia slaps the president’s face and his response is to kiss her.  That’s explosive!

And while Aristotle concedes that viewers are going to allow your story to have a fair amount of “artifice” as long as it moves them, the action must “imitate” so effectively that the audience responds “imitatively” as well, as if to real events.  As previously written, this is the art of suturing.  It’s no accident that Scandal references real-life events that either threatened or caused the downfall of a president i.e. Nixon and Clinton.  Anyone who lived through those eras feels it in their gut when the spectre of a presidential scandal or resignation is raised.  And, these days, there are enough books on the subject of America’s demise in the marketplace to spook any God-fearing patriot.  Even this bleeding-heart liberal was seduced into downloading onto her Kindle After America: Get Ready for Armageddon just to see what the fear mongering is all about.

The perfect Plot, accordingly, must have a single, and not a double issue. ~ Aristotle

Aristotle insists that in a unified dramatic story the subject is an action, not a person; you write a single unified action as a “through line,” which becomes the story’s subject.  All the action, no matter how many characters are running around performing sub-actions, is related through either probable or necessary cause and effect.  [Tierno, 2002, p. 26]  The audience needs to derive the specifics of what’s causing, in our case, Olivia’s actions, through other characters.   Hence, while we have a tight-lipped protagonist who keeps her emotional cards close to her chest, we come to understand who she is through her clients and her team.  We come to understand what it’s like to have to keep your love secret; what it’s like to be someone’s mistress; what it’s like to be young and idealistic.

So that it is the action in it, i.e. its Fable or Plot, that is the end and purpose of the tragedy; and the end is everywhere the chief thing.  ~Aristotle

Tierno translates this to mean that the ends are always in the means of the plot.  I’m not sure if I reported it in my episode analysis, but within each client’s problem exists the clue to solving the case.  In episode one, Captain Sully repeatedly says, “Page is my best friend.”   In episode two, it is the Madam’s client list and her clients who, indeed, solve the case, and so on…  Also, note that each of Olivia's clients face a moral dilemma in which they must choose their own needs over another's:  Sully had to reconcile his happiness with the needs of those who had supported the image he'd perpetrated as the all-American hero; the Madam's right to see her grandchildren over her "johns'" families; the General's desire to keep his children with him over the natural fact that they belonged with their mother.

According to Aristotle, there are four distinct “species” of plots and it’s entirely possible for a drama to include all four.  Since we’re discussing broadcast television, you’re not likely to see much spectacle, though certainly the scale of sets is growing, and sound – or at least music - plays a significant role in Scandal (something I meant to touch on earlier).  Let’s see…  Complex i.e. containing a reversal of fortune/discovery – check.  Tragedy of suffering – check.   Tragedy of character – check.

Aristotle also says that the best tragedies take place over a single day, as this makes the events more intense, giving the change in the hero’s fortune the greatest magnitude and the audience the biggest rush.  Within each episode of Scandal, there is always a timeline, always a rush to beat the clock, always a reversal as one day you're "in" with the President, the next day "out."

The center of gravity in a dramatic story is simple:  It’s called the tragic deed.  [Tierno, 2002, p. 59].  The tragic deed is an action of a destructive or painful nature, such as murders, tortures, woundings, and the like. 

In a deed of this description the parties must necessarily be either friend, enemies, or indifferent to one another.  When enemy does it on enemy, there is nothing to move us to pity.  Whenever the tragic, deed, however is done within the family, these are the situations the poet aka writer should seek after.

This barely needs explaining as allegiances shift and change with the backhanded politics in Scandal, let alone the murder and torture… and this is only season one!

When misfortune befalls a hero is both undeserved and caused by the hero, it arouses pity and fear in the audience.  Among the list of twelve undeserved misfortunes that Aristotle outlines as subject matters that arouse pity and fear in audiences are:

1.     Death – Amanda Tanner was both undeserving and the cause of her own death.
2.     Bodily assault or ill treatment – Charlie was both undeserving and the cause of his own torture.
3.     Having your good expectations disappointed – applies to Abbey, Harrison, Huck and Stephen… as well as Olivia.
4.     Having good things happen but being unable to enjoy them…

Which brings me, finally, to Episode 7.  Next blog post!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Directing and the Art of Suturing in Scandal

Before I post my analysis of the final episode of season one of Scandal, I want to say a few words on directing as it relates to suturing, a technique to which I’ve recently become attuned, whether it be in a movie, TV show or rock concert!  

Recently, at a Chris Isaak concert, Chris, early in his performance came off the stage to walk among the audience in search of someone to whom he would give a guitar.  It didn’t take him long to find a worthy recipient, a beautiful girl around nine or ten years old wearing a midnight blue satin dress that coincidentally complemented his sparkling baby blue suit.  He brought her on to the stage and taught her the basics of rock and roll, thoroughly delighting and wooing the audience in the process. Later in the show, he walked among the audience, had his base guitarist walk among the audience, invited women onto the stage to dance with his lead guitarist, all the while encouraging the audience to take photographs and go wild in celebration of his last concert of the year.  There was not a single person at that concert who didn’t fall in love with Chris Isaak and who wouldn’t gladly fork out money to see him again, not to mention tell all their friends about how fantastic he was.  This, I realized was the art of suturing, creating identification with your audience.

My favorite movie of 2013, which I saw twice on the same weekend, was Gravity.  The techniques used by Alfonso Cuaron to bond the audience with Sandra Bullock’s character were especially effective in 3D, my most memorable being when we crossed through the glass of her space helmet to bring you literally inside her head during the opening sequence; when the space ship debris came flying right off the screen; and when her single tear drop suspended in space.  These moments effectively put the audience not only in her universe, but “in her shoes.”

Scandal’s team of directors is also adept at physically suturing with viewers, in particular utilizing the long take of an extreme close-up, whether it be Olivia or another character’s face, or hands that long to touch but can’t or don’t.  We are also given the reactions of all the characters in a room, especially when it’s Olivia’s team assembled in the conference room or behind glass walls.  Since this is a single-camera show, the amount of takes it requires to accomplish this contributes to really good television, but it is particularly relevant to creating a through-line that ties together a logical progression of cause and effect, from beginning to end. 

Other notable choices are the quiet versus the ‘on-the go shots’ in which we get to experience the pace of Washington D.C. politics through the characters talking in motion.  And it would take me a year to analyze scene structure, but I do notice that invariably a scene opens and ends on the same character, even if it’s one in which Olivia has entered then left, usually having had the last word.  Likewise, the majority of episodes end on Olivia’s face.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Reflective Report... Oh No!

I began this project with the assumption that television, while differing in structure from film, is based on a morale premise and that the morale premise can be seen in each episode and each character.  In my research paper, The Foundation of Story, I hypothesized that the “Premise is the Promise.” I therefore sought to identify, by analyzing a first season of one episodic television show, the premise and how it was proven within each episode and over the season.  Additionally, I expected to see how subtext was used to elevate the premise and contribute to the essential elements of each character that drive story.  My goal in doing this was to have a model to which I could refer, if not exactly emulate, when it comes to writing my own television series.  I also wanted to understand the ‘buttons’ that inspire binge watching.

Initially, I had thought to analyze Orphan Black, a sci-fi show produced by BBC America.  Upon second viewing of the show, I considered it too niche for my purposes and switched to Scandal, an American political thriller created by Shonda Rhimes and broadcast on the ABC network.  Orphan Black follows a clear ‘desire line,’ as John Truby writes in his article ‘Why TV is the Future and How to Write for it’.   On the other hand, Scandal contains a story within each episode while maintaining multiple storylines over several episodes, which is more in keeping with the type of show that I have in mind to write.

My methodology was to break down each show by beat and chart it in an Excel spreadsheet.  What I actually did was break down each show by scene, meaning that a beat can carry over several scenes.  Following the suggestions of Ellen Sandler in The TV Writer’s Workbook (2006), I paid attention to such as details as whether the protagonist walked into a scene, walked out, who was assembled within a scene, who had last word, etc.  This proved to be minutiae that, ultimately, did not serve my purpose.  Or perhaps, having identified that Olivia pretty much always walked into a scene and walked away while delivering the last word, I quickly got it and needed to move on.  The other thing that I was paying attention to was the set pieces.  In typical sitcoms and serial dramas, there are two sets with the occasional swing set.  In Scandal, there are a number of sets in which the action regularly takes places – the White House, the office of Olivia Pope Associates, Olivia’s apartment, the DA’s office – as well as many others, the morgue, Press Room, parks, clients’ homes, etc.  Clearly, the producers spare no expense on production values.  They do, however, utilize every minute of screen time with no time wasted, for example, sitting in cars driving across town.  They utilize the technique, which in my spreadsheet I call “DC Pics,” of a montage of three to five stills accompanied by the old-fashion click of cameras going off to change locations.  This technique is not only expedient and time saving, given that the subject of the show is spinning the media, it is also very apropos.

On reflection, I should have been paying attention to different things, not that the spreadsheet is entirely useless, simply that I will want to break it down into index cards and color code them so that they can be manipulated as necessary.  This was a technique I used when writing my feature film MISMO, which tells parallel storylines about three characters whose lives inexorably connect. 

I also should not have made the assumption that Scandal contains a morale premise.  While there is a morale dilemma in every episode, this is not the same as the show being founded on a morale premise, and if it is, it’s one that I failed to identify.  Initially, I thought that the premise was “Who you love shouldn’t have to be a secret,” which, trying to meet Stanley Williams’ requirements, I turned into,” A person should be allowed to be themselves and love openly because such secrets lead to scandals.”  Realizing that this wasn’t quite the “Vice leads to Defeat, but Virtue leads to Success” equation, I struggled further and in the end resorted to McKee’s theory of “What if?” as a guiding tool.   So in Scandal that might be turned into “What if a man and woman who love each other cannot declare their love openly in the world?” which definitely is the basis of each episode.  Now that I’ve thought of that, I will have to go and reflect further on each episode and see how this drives each character and the story.  I think it just might work!

Which goes to show that constant analyses and reiteration of a problem can lead to different results.

I don't know if that's a Little Uh Oh! or an Ouch! but I have one last episode to examine, so let's see whether it holds true.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Characters and Sub Plots

While I’ve identified the main beats of each episode, I still have to analyze how storylines are introduced and interwoven.  The best I can say is that Scandal follows screenwriting best practices: get in late, get out early.

Hence, we jump right into the season pilot with a problem, foregoing background exposition other than “gladiators in suits” and Olivia Pope wears the white hat, which is immediately exemplified by Olivia solving one problem and moving right on to the next.  Like all good movies, you start with an ending.  And while Olivia and her team of gladiators, to whom we are given perfunctory introductions, work on one problem, the real problem, which will develop into the murder mystery thread for the next six episodes, arises 20 minutes into the show.  From this we derive twists and subplots that are riveting and surprising and cause this analyst to ask which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Did Shonda Rhimes know in advance what she was going to do in seasons two and three and build those elements into the first season, or did she build in enough ideas from which could arise any number of variables for subsequent seasons?

Not providing characters with back story is a deliberate ploy on the part of television writers because it gives them the freedom to suddenly introduce grandma out of the woodpile, or in this case a mother who died in a plane crash.  Oh wait, she’s not dead, she’s been imprisoned for twenty years!

While we meet our main cast in the Pilot, we are introduced to a new character each episode.  In episode two, it’s Billy; in episode three, it’s Gideon; episode four, James; five, Charlie; six, Sally.   This technique spoon feeds viewers and gives them time to assimilate each new character and their role in the story.  And then, finally, in the penultimate show of the season we get the backstory on how our central characters came together, their raison d'etre.  Just think, if this had all been laid our linearly how bored our TV viewing audience would be.

The other technique that precludes audience confusion is the clever casting of physically diverse characters and the unique voice that each is given.  An old screenwriting lesson used Unforgiven (written by none other than the great David Webb Peoples) as an example.  The lesson was: if you close your eyes, you can still identify which cowboy is talking by his speech pattern.  Close your eyes and you cannot confuse any female character in Scandal with another, nor male character with another.  Though they deliver equally brilliant speeches, Cyrus and David are distinctly different right down to the vocabulary they use.  Fitz has a habit of repeating himself, especially when he’s talking to Olivia.  For example, he doesn’t say, “I love you,” once, but three times.  He doesn’t say, “You know me,” once, but three times.  He doesn’t say, “Say my name,” once, but three times.  Huck has his stock phrases.  Harrison is our smooth legal talker, Stephen our womanizer, Abbey our bitch with a heart, and Quinn is our quivering, eager-to-please, fish out of a barrel, mess. 

On the subject of Quinn, she is our one character who will undergo a character arc.  I find this interesting as she was the first character we opened on in the Pilot, the only one to have developed a personal life, and the only one who will undergo a radical change.

Notes on Structure

A big part of retaining the promise for television viewers is maintaining characters’ equilibrium.  People would be shocked – and stop tuning in – if Olivia Pope were to lose it emotionally and become incapable of directing her team in her smart, fast-talking style, or if she showed up anything less than impeccably groomed even after being up all night.  She may have moments of weakness – thank you, she’s human – but she always rises to the occasion.  Likewise, all the other characters stay true to their core.  Cyrus isn’t going to adopt a baby and become a stay-at-home husband.  The President isn’t going to resign his power to the Christian Right Wing.  For one thing, Mellie wouldn’t allow it!  This creates a unity of opposites in which compromise is impossible.  As Egri says, “the characters have to be made of such stuff that they will go the limit.  The unity between opposites must be so strong that the deadlock can be broken only if one of the adversaries or both are exhausted, beaten or annihilated completely at the end.”  If any of our characters fail to go to the limit that will be the end of our show.

It also means that characters don’t have the classic arcs at the heart of a film’s story, the hero’s journey in which the protagonist is catapulted forward into a world, facing external hurdles while overcoming internal flaws, resulting in a change of character.  Instead, characters in television essentially remain the same and are revealed through their relationships with other characters. Our relationship with them grows and deepens with time, from episode to episode and season to season.

Since we can’t have our characters change, it follows that we can’t follow film’s structure.  In a previous post, I identified that the structure set forth by Ellen Sandler [The TV Writer’s Workbook, 2007, p.7] seems to hold true for Scandal and, indeed, in subsequent posts, identified the Oh!, Little Uh Oh! etc., beats within each episode.  For clarification:

Oh! is the inciting incident that sets the story in motion.  What makes today different?  With each new client, Pope Associates has an incident that sets the story in motion.  The clients’ situations can also be seen as metaphors for what is going on within the true story (that of the relationship between Olivia and Fitz) from Olivia’s perspective, while the Amanda Tanner storyline provides an ironic perspective from the political world in which Fitz operates.

The Little Uh Oh! is a turning point; something unexpected that turns the story in a new direction.   As an example, in our last episode, the Little Uh Oh! occurred when Cyrus announced they weren’t going to win New Hampshire because a story was coming out about Mellie having an affair.

Ouch! presents the greatest jeopardy for the central character.  It is a painful moment.  While Olivia is our protagonist, Fitz is also a central character and shares in these painful moments.

The Big Uh Ohhh! is what pushes our central character to go on and face her fear.  This is invariably around the 30-minute mark when Olivia confronts either a General, the DA, Cyrus or even the President.   Interestingly, the Big Uh Ohhh! comes mid-act and does not precede a commercial break.

Oh No! reveals what the whole story is about.  It is usually the clue to solving the client’s case, even if the client is the now dead Amanda Tanner.

The Twist-a-Roo adds a note of irony that makes the story funny or poignant.   In the political twists and turns of Scandal, the stories tend toward poignant.

The Ah! is where your characters arrive back to so-called normal as they were at the beginning of the episode.  It’s where the audience exhales a sigh of relief.  As noted, we gain this in the final two minutes of each episode before the next problem arises.

And therein lies our “Button,” the thing that makes us tune in next week, or, if watching on Netflix, click right on to the next episode and the next into the week hours of the morning.

The Premise as Promise

The goal of this exercise was to understand the intricacies of how a story is structured over multiple episodes and how it adheres to its premise within each episode and over the season, as well as identify what the buttons are that inspire binge watching.  I aimed to do this by testing Egri’s theory, which states, “If you have a clear-cut premise, almost automatically a synopsis unrolls itself.  You elaborate on it, providing the minute details, the personal touches.” [Egri, 1946, p.15)

Dr. Stanley Williams further elaborates, “Egri calls the controlling idea or theme of a story simply the premise, and for 296 pages defines its central importance.  Egri expounds on why it is the [moral] premise that defines the singular dramatic arc of the story and every character in it.  With detailed examples and practical insight, Egri describes how the outward action of a character has no undergirding motivation without the [morale] premise.  Thought always precedes action.” [Williams, 2006, p.5]

As discussed in my earlier post Egri presented his premise in a simple format that Williams went on to develop into a double-barreled formula, and trying to satisfy this formula may be why I’ve failed to identify the morale premise for Scandal.

It may be why Robert McKee presents premise as an open-ended question that prompts an idea.  In his example, “What would happen if a shark swam into a beach resort and devoured a vacationer?” [McKee, 1997, p. 112]

If we adopt Robert McKee’s approach then identifying the premise of Scandal becomes easier, “What would happen if the President of the United States of America, a married man, fell deeply in love with another woman?”  This raises a multitude of ensuing questions, and when you add the race card it ups the ante, (though this subject is delicately handled), before even accounting for the wife’s response and those supporting his administration.

Other writing gurus talk about theme and emotional through-line and, certainly in Scandal, these are mutlifold: we have themes of the law, doing the right thing; power, its uses and abuses; loyalty and love.  We see these played out through our characters:

Olivia Pope wears the white hat, and with her team of “gladiators in suits,” goes to battle on behalf of clients to save them from being crucified by the media.  We have the theme of always fighting for the good, even if it means bending the law to do it.  With the exception of Quinn (which I’ll discuss later) no-one in Olivia’s team has a personal life.  Since Olivia has saved each of them, they owe their allegiance to her and the emotional through-line is that Olivia always comes first, they protect her.

Fitzgerald Grant III, President of the United States of America, is the most powerful man on the planet.  He is also a hostage to his job, unable to live the life he wants with the woman he loves.  His emotional through-line is that Olivia is the love of his life.  His theme, debatably, is that it’s lonely at the top.

Cyrus Beene, Chief of Staff, has the intellectual capacity to be president, but is lacking the schoolboy good looks and politically-correct sexual orientation.  Therefore, he must exert his power as the President’s right-hand man.  He will do anything to protect the president and see that he remains in power.  This, invariably, puts him in morally dubious situations.  

Mellie, the First Lady, will also go to any lengths to see that her husband remains in power.  In many ways Mellie is a martyr to the cause, but the cause is also self-serving as she has no intention of giving up the lifestyle to which she has become acquainted and may have political ambitions of her own. 

David, the DA, will go to any lengths to uphold the law.  He is the law.  And in the next season, we will see how the law turns against him, as it inevitably must, and to what extremes he will then go to defend his white hat.  The emotional through-line between Olivia and David, as they jockey over who wears the white hat, is that of friendship.

In certain ways, our characters are all martyrs and, if nothing else, extreme, or as Egri would say, contain strength of will.  “These characters are vital, full of fight, and they will easily carry the play to a crescendo” [Egri, 1946, p.78] or, in our case, over 100 episodes.  

So while I may not have identified one tidy formula, we have a set of themes and one potent “What if?” question that fulfills the promise for viewers each week.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Trail - Scandal, Episode 6

We open where we left off in episode five: Olivia, “Why are you here?”  Fitz, “I didn’t kill Amanda Tanner.”  Olivia, “I know.”  Fitz then says, as if it’s Olivia’s fault, “You left me.  She was there.  It was one time.  A mistake.”  Olivia, “You cheat on your mistress with your girlfriend?”  Fitz, “She’s not my girlfriend, and don’t ever call yourself a mistress.”  Fitz holds up the sex tape.  “You need to hear this.”  Olivia believes it’s a tape with Fitz and another woman; she refuses.

Superimpose titles: TWO YEARS AGO

The then Governor Grant is giving a speech about how Sally Langston is beating him. She won Iowa and they're in danger of losing New Hampshire. He asks his campaign team for ideas.  Olivia speaks up and tells him the problem is his marriage.  “It looks like you don’t screw your wife.”  People want to vote for people they can invite into their home, have a beer with, like George Bush ‘cos he looks like fun.

This is actually an interesting speech because the same holds true for television viewers; audiences watch shows that contain a ‘family’ with which they resonate.  Even if it's a family with extreme faults, it provides them with characters with whom they can sympathize, even empathize.  In some cases, it makes them feel better about their own lives, family, jobs.  It’s why people invite TV characters into their home week after week.  And in this episode, we will develop a kinship with Olivia and Fitzgerald Grant.  Instead of seeing them as the untouchable President of the United States and high-powered Washington DC fixer, we will relate to them as two people deeply in love who, because of circumstances and timing, can’t be together.   If you have a romantic bone in your body, this episode will break your heart, which is perhaps why the show scores high across all Key Women brackets (ages 18-34; 18-49; and 25-54) 

Continuing, the Governor asks, “And you are?”  And, there’s our sweet, diminutive protagonist standing proud, “Olivia Pope.”

In Cyrus’s office, Fitz tells Cyrus to fire her.  When he turns around Olivia is standing there.  She takes off.  Cyrus gives another of his sharp speeches in which he describes himself as a sausage-maker, a nitty-gritty, back-alley brawler for which politics is his hallelujah, heroin and reason to breathe.  But, Fitz, “You don’t have the stomach for it, so you go on and make nice with Olivia Pope.  Ger her back or you can go find another sausage maker.” 

Fitz chases after and catches up with Olivia.  They stand toe to toe, warriors facing off.  She explains that she gave up her job in order to volunteer for his campaign, she would eat, breathe, live Fitzgerald Grant every day and “You’d be lucky to have me.”  He agrees, “I would be lucky to have you.”  Now they’re eye to eye and it’s clear that he means something more; the attraction is mutual and it’s palpable.  “Is this the reason you fired me?”

They resolve to get back to work and we cut to: both campaigns working a Veteran Pancake breakfast in New Hampshire.  A happy, eager intern delivers a schedule of events to Olivia and Cyrus.  It’s Amanda Tanner.  Cyrus thanks her, “regardless of what party you’re voting for.”  This seems like a throw away comment, but every piece of dialogue in Scandal either advances the story or contains sub-text.  In direct contrast, we cut to a close-up of Amanda Tanner laid out on a slab in the morgue.  The DA calls Alissa, “We’re working late tonight.”  Oh! This is not going to be an ordinary night, which we already know it isn’t because across town the President of the United States of America is in his lover’s apartment without the benefit of the entire secret service to protect him.

Amanda and Gideon have fun in bed.  She’s about to leave when he tells her to stay to night; he’ll go into the living room to work.  At the DA’s office we finally get to see Alissa, an Asian Barbie doll with a penchant for eight-inch heels who is one bar-test away from becoming a lawyer.  The DA, David, tells her, “We have a murder to solve.”  He outlines the Amanda Tanner situation… “Don’t you at least find that interesting, incongruous, intriguing?  If so, what would be your first question?”  Alissa replies, “Who in the White House would want her dead?”

We’re back in the past and Mellie is aghast, “You cancelled all our events?”  Cyrus and Olivia leave Mellie and Fitz to discuss the situation.  A screaming argument ensues in which Mellie outlines everything she’s done for him including giving up her career and having kids.  Fitz retorts with, “If living on Pennsylvania is that important to you, suck it up and start acting like this isn’t a dead marriage.”  Cyrus and Olivia hear every word.

The Governor and Mellie are questioned by reporters, with James asking the leading question, “Five points down in the polls, isn’t it risky to be taking time off?”

Preparing for a morning talk show, Olivia and Fitz share an intimate moment when she replaces his tie because the one he was wearing was bad for the camera.  Cyrus and Olivia look on as the interview is underway and we learn that Mellie was first in her class at Harvard Law.  Mellie makes a joke.  Cyrus says, “Not bad.” Olivia says, “Yes, but they’re still not touching.”  At the next Grant campaign event, an ice-cream social, Mellie proffers an ice-cream cone to her husband.  He licks it and lands up with some on his chin.  On the sidelines, Olivia is silently urging her to wipe his chin, wipe it.  Seconds pass by and Mellie finally wipes his chin and then licks the cream off her hand.  He kisses her and it’s a great photo opp that makes TV headlines, causing Sally Langston to virtually have a fit because the tables are turning on her and it is not God’s intention that she should lose.  She wants to know who’s running the campaign.  Her wrath is aimed at Billy, who will do everything in his power to find out what’s going on in the Grant campaign.

The night before the New Hampshire vote and the Grant campaign is jubilant.  Cyrus breaks the news that they’re not going to win because a story is going to hit early in the morning announcing that Mellie is having an affair.  Little Uh Oh!  We certainly didn’t see that coming.  Olivia comments to Fitz that she thought he and Mellie were doing great.  He replies, “I think you underestimate how good a politician I am.”

Sally wins the New Hampshire primary and Billy tells Olivia, “You can’t spin a dead marriage.  Sally and Doug can’t keep their hands off each other; they’re like teenagers.”  We’ll eventually find out the truth of that, but not in this episode.  Billy offers the VP slot if they’ll concede before South Carolina.  Olivia declines and Billy comments how confident she is for someone with no cards left to play.  Olivia, “I always have cards left to play.”  

At Grant HQ, Huck, barely recognizable through wild dreads and an unkempt beard, chows down on pizza.  Fitz, “That’s the man who’s going to save my campaign?”  Earlier that day, Olivia brings coffee to a homeless man on the street.  He announces, “You’re late.”  Olivia asks if he’s ready to enter the real world today.  Back to Grant HQ and Huck is debriefing the team on the man who has been following Mellie for six months photographing all her meetings and late-night conferences with the man who heads up the Literacy Program.  What makes things worse is that he isn’t denying the affair, leaving the media to conclude that it's true.  Huck has hacked into his bank records and points out strange, incremental deposits that have been going on for thirty years. 

Olivia calls Abbey, still baking in Olivia’s kitchen, “Are you ready for something new?”  Abbey says, “I’m thinking of going savory.”  Cut to Abbey walking into offices bearing a tray of baked goods.  “What goes on here?”  It’s a ‘specialty’ film company.  Olivia tells Fitz and Fitz jokes about how they’re going to use the information, who are you going to surprise me with next?  Olivia, “I got a guy, another guy.  Technically, he’s on probation.”  Cut to Harrison watching porn in the Literacy man’s house; apparently the Lit guy has a fetish for sucking toes... that's the specialty film!  The Lit guy walks in and Harrison delivers his smooth, persuasive dialogue that leaves the opponent no options.  The Lit guy will make a statement denying any untoward relationship with Mellie.

It’s the night of the Republican Presidential Debate in South Carolina.  Sally gets in the first digs about immigration, wanting to protect the nation's borders, suggesting that perhaps, “Governor Grant open his Santa Barbara home for amnesty.”  The next question for the Governor addresses his marriage, even though infidelity has been dismissed.  Fitz gives a great political speech, because he manages to tell the truth a la Clinton that leads everyone to believe one thing when actually he means another and that is after 20 years of marriage, there’s only one thing he can say with absolutely certainty and that he is, “a man in love with an incredible woman.”  His eyes meet with Olivia’s across the room.

In an elevator, Olivia and Fitz stand alone, close, but not touching.  He slowly inches towards her and turns just as the elevator door opens and Cyrus, in a hallway packed with the campaign team, pops champagne.  Fitz exits, leaving Olivia alone, quietly devastated.

Meanwhile, back in real time, Gideon is burning the midnight oil on the phone tracking down Amanda’s Golden Retriever, the one that she claimed the president gave her.  He learns that her boyfriend has the dog.  “Her boyfriend.  Really?”  Alissa is analyzing the White House logs, determines that Amanda never goes home, concludes that whoever she’s doing it with, she’s doing it in the White House, leaving 56 possible male candidates.

Super Tuesday is around the corner and Olivia is busy at Grant HQ.  Fitz follows her into the hallway.  Theu face each other. “I’m married.”  The situation is impossible.  He asks, “Can we just stand here for one minute?”  They stand eye-to-eye, close, but not touching. “Just one minute.”  She says, “One minute.”  It’s testament to this show’s cast and crew that two people standing silently for the best part of a minute in screen time can be sexy, poignant and full of tension, which is broken by the ebullient Mellie bursting in, horrified at what Wardrobe wants her to wear that night.  She hustles Olivia away, but not before giving her husband an arched eye.

On the Grant Campaign Bus, Cyrus reads polls, announces they’re still down, not winning women votes.  Some dirty campaign tricks are proposed and Fitz says, “We’re playing this game above board, win or lose.”  The scene ends on Mellie. 

At a campaign stop before a crowd of Southern pie-baking women, Mellie can’t take it any more; she tearfully confesses that the stress of the campaign trail caused her to lose their baby.  "Though it was only 8 weeks, it was a party of our family…" Bring out the tissues.  Fitz had wanted to quit, but she wouldn’t let him because she knows he’s the best man for the job… The crowd eats it up.  Mellie turns to hug her husband, “I think that ought to take care of it, don’t you?”  End on Fitz’s astonished face.  Ouch!

In present time, Gidoen learns that Amanda was pregnant; while Alissa goes through all the pics of White House employees, discarding each one as fat, old, ugly.  She ends on Billy.  “He’s cute.” 

It’s night and it’s dark and quiet on the Grant Campaign Bus.  Olivia takes her coffee and retreats to the back of the bus to sit next to Fitz.  She offers her condolences, asks whether Mellie shouldn’t take a break.  Fitz replies, “Twelve campaign stops in two days, she’s thrilled.  Nothing keeps that woman down, not even a fake miscarriage.  She’s a real catch my wife.  I’m a lucky man.”  He continues, “I’m looking down at myself wondering how did I get here?  Why didn’t I meet you sooner?  What kind of coward was I to marry her and not wait for you to show up?”  Though I’m running this dialogue together, this is a long scene with a lot of quiet moments and extreme close-ups.  Fitz asks Olivia to say his name.  She says, “That would be inappropriate.”  He asks again, “Say my name.”  Olivia struggles; eventually she says, “Fitz,” and their hands inch towards each other.

At the hotel, Cyrus is leading the charge to his room, says good night.  Olivia’s room is next with Fitz’s at the end of the corridor.  He tells her to go into her room, pretend this never happened.  Her back is to him and we can’t see what she’s thinking, but eventually she turns and leads the way to his room.   We next have a series of intercuts mixing up and shortening the series of events.  Nonetheless, for broadcast TV, it’s hot and heavy.  The only words uttered are by Fitz, “Take off your clothes,” and as her panties fall to the floor the camera pans to a recording device beneath the bed.

The person listening on the other end picks up the phone, announces he has something and, soon thereafter, a package is delivered to Amanda Tanner with the message, “This goes to your boss.”  Amanda delivers the package to Billy, and we cut to a montage of Amanda being pulled from the water, photos of men at the White House, ending with Billy hitting on Amanda.  Amanda is a huge fan of Sally Langston.

Gideon, still burning the midnight oil, watches footage and ends on Billy.

We zip through an historial montage of Fitz and Olivia that brings us back to present time with the sex tape as V.O. culminating in Fitz, “Take off your clothes.”  Olivia is stunned into realization. “They’ve had this for two years.  Why now?”  Because all they had was a voice, they needed a girl.  “They needed Amanda Tanner.”  Oh No!  We’ve reached the point of what the whole Amanda Tanner story is about.

Meanwhile, Alissa proposes that they subpoena the men at the White House for blood samples.  The DA says, “We can’t subpoena.  We have a suicide and a hunch.”  Gideon, however, is forging ahead.  He’s on the phone asking to speak with Billy, when Quinn appears from the bedroom and announces she’s off to get bagels.

Back in the past and Billy presents Sally with a flash drive containing the sex tape.  Sally, however, has just accepted the position of Vice President.  Billy begs her to listen to the tape, but Sally is in full holy-roller stride telling a story about a farmer and his crop.  “One day God will burn the weeds and save the fruit, but for now, let them grow.”  Billy is sorely disappointed.

In Olivia’s apartment, dawn is breaking and Olivia tells Fitz that he needs to get back to the White House before the press corps comes in.  The President stallw, “I imagined your place a thousand times.  I like it.  It looks like you.”  They both agree that he should go, but, like other lovers, parting is such deep sorrow.  Fitz says, “One minute?”  She says, “one minute.”  They sit on the sofa, his arm around hers, and then she curls into him.  Time passes, eventually she stirs.  They stand and she helps him with his jacket.  They stand face to face.  He says, “Goodbye, Olivia.”  She says, “Goodbye, Mr. President.”  And the audience screams, at least this one does, “are they never going to see each other again?!”

At Gideon’s apartment, Gideon confronts Billy with the information he has that points to Billy being Amanda's boyfriend.  Billy rants about the morons that surround him, how he handed the story to Gideon on a plate, sent him photos, logs, did “everything but draw you a picture of their (president and Amanda) stick figures doing it.  “It was an easy script, big letters, small words, you could follow it in your sleep.”  It dawns on Gideon, “You sent her in to sleep with the president.”  Billy admits he may be a joke but a dead White House intern carrying the VPA’s love child is still a story.  Billy stops in his tracks, cold murder literally crosses his face.  When Gideon goes to fetch the coroner’s report, Billy stabs him in the throat with scissors. Twist-a-Roo!

Two years earlier:  the President and VP are on stage with Billy, Cyrus and Olivia applauding in the wings.


It’s fitting that as we draw to the close of the season we are given insight into our characters' backgrounds and how they came together, revealing what makes them tick and how this creates "characters who plot their own play." [Egri, 1946, p.100]  This is done so cleverly, intertwined with the love story of Olivia and the President and the murder mystery of ‘who killed Amanda Tanner?’

And, if we weren’t rooting for our lovers to be together, we are now as Mellie is revealed to be a cold-hearted, political animal, whose aim in life is to be First Lady.  Judging by the speech that she gave, i.e. I had children for you, we may ask, “Did she ever love Fitz or was the White House always her goal?”