18 January 2013

Scandal - series 1

I watched the first series of Scandal, a US show that aired in the UK a few months ago. I've been a bit slow to write it up.

When I first saw the adverts it looked like a lawyer show with a political backdrop. Though it turned out to be more of a political drama/thriller. While many of the main characters are lawyers (or presumably have legal degrees) there's no courtroom drama. The show doesn't fit comfortably into any particular generic box, which is mostly a strength as there's no need for it to follow conventional storylines.

Olivia Pope used to work for the White House and was a major player in President Grant's campaign. Now she runs a private agency that discreetly and efficiently solves problems for very wealthy clients. The team includes a few lawyers, a private investigator and an IT/security expert. The problems they deal with largely mean intervening to ensure that clients interests are protected and their secrets are kept out of the public eye. Running alongside the Problem of the Week format is an arc about a White House affair and a conspiracy to discredit the President.

I enjoyed Scandal, despite being regularly irritated by some of the production decisions and feeling decidedly lukewarm towards some main characters. I suspect it was concept, the good characters and the conspiracy plot that kept me hooked. The reveals were well paced and there were both character and plot beats that surprised me, in a good way.

Olivia Pope is clearly the main force in the show and it's good to see a female character in that position. I can't fault the performance or the character.
The only issue is that the show seems to be a little too in love with her. She has this huge, powerful reputation and the way that all the other characters go on about Olivia Pope, Olivia Pope (she does not look through a telescope)* makes her seem magic and therefore a bit unrealistic. Until you have a scene actually featuring Olivia (which is the bulk of them), at which point you again realise that she is human and vulnerable and badass and awesome.

Isn't it odd how posed TV publicity photos can be? As though the characters are in a school picture.
Olivia's firm are introduced to the audience through Quinn, who is recruited in the first episode. I'm not quite sure why she's there, except to have other characters explain things to her, look shocked about stuff, and give people hot drinks when there are problems. She does have a Big Secret Past, so I assume she's going to get more interesting in series 2.

There are 2 male lawyers whose names I don't remember. British lawyer is a womaniser who's trying to reform. As well as lawyering, his job is to be inexplicably irresistible to women, gather information, and receive stern looks from female colleagues. He has a fiancee we barely see, I feel bad for her.
American lawyer's job is to appear cool and badass while questioning people or giving pep talks, and to big up Olivia's rep as much as possible. I think he also does some lawyering.

Huck, the technician, is a good character. He's clearly the IT expert, but is in no way geeky. In fact he's dour and taciturn with an intense physical presence. He's also the securities expert and is obviously ex-military (or something). He displays a caring side but it's clear he can be dangerous. We don't find out how dangerous until later in the series, but his is the most interesting and surprising backstory (presumably until Quinn's secret is revealed).

Then there's Abbie, the outspoken, liberal private investigator. I feel as though I ought to really like Abbie as she clearly has many of the same views as me, but I don't. She's OK, but I didn't feel a connection with her. I think it's the way she reels off a disapproving litany of Bad Things about a person or situation -many of these things (homophobia, corruption, misogyny, rich & privileged folk making life hard for others) are definitely bad and I too disapprove of them. Perhaps the issue is that she says these things with impassioned conviction, then gets on with her job of helping the rich clients keep the status quo in tact. That said there are episodes where she has her way and is able to act for the greater good, though it's usually Olivia who actually sets those outcomes in motion.

Special mentions go to Cyrus, the openly gay Chief of Staff to a Republican President (it took me 3 episodes to realise President Grant was Republican) who can be charming and incredibly ruthless. There's also the long-suffering Washington DA played by West Wing-alum Joshua Molina, who sees Olivia as both an ally and a major thorn in his side.

I'm not the sort of person who tends to notice technical decisions in TV shows, though I appreciate they're important. So it's probably a big deal that I found myself regularly annoyed by camera angles and scene changes.
Almost every internal scene was filmed through a window or glass door, often ones that were wobbly or frosted. Olivia's offices contain frosted glass dividers and it seems as though the camera loved the things, often panning around them so that speaking characters were temporarily hidden from sight. It's a good thing that there isn't more glass in  the White House, meaning there was some respite from it in those scenes.
I think the show was going for a unique and interesting visual style, possibly one suggesting covert surveillance/observation. Though I wouldn't be surprised to hear that a glazing firm stumped up some money. Either way, the end result appears to be a conviction that large sheets of glass separating the action from the audience are a Good Thing.

The irritating scene changes happen at least twice in each episode, except for the flashback episodes (which I enjoyed). These were a rapid series of location shots, almost too quick to register, accompanied by the traditional shutter-click noise of photos being taken. Again this was a decision clearly intended to create a distinctive style, which it did. It could have been another indication of covert surveillance (which probably isn't best achieved by noisily taking photos from behind glass), although there wasn't much of that in the action. Maybe it was meant to summon images of story-hungry paparazzi, and associated trial by media, which was often the threat hanging over characters.

The quicker this photo is taken the quicker we can all get back to class.

I'm interested to see what the second series is like. I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens next and how Olivia and others will handle it. I'm hoping that I'll warm to the characters I'd didn't get on with. It sounds as though British lawyer isn't in season 2, so that's one down.

* Me and my husband initially made hilarious (to us) references to rhyming picture book Shark in the Park by Nick Sharrat, which has a main character called Timothy Pope, who also has a telescope. We probably would have stopped our childish giggling sooner if it weren't for the fact that characters constantly refer to Olivia by her full name, bringing the word telescope to our minds every time.

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