What Scandal's Crazy Plots Get Right: Politics and Love in the Internet Age

Shonda Rhimes's political thriller realistically portrays the many ways relationships—in Washington and otherwise—are shaped by web news, Skype, and social media.

ABC's hit Scandal lives up to its name. It's the kind of show that (spoilers ahead) introduces, blows through, and wraps up a presidential-assassination plot in the space of a few episodes. The premise itself is crazy: Kerry Washington stars as D.C. crisis management and PR impresario Olivia Pope, who "fixes" the problems of political bigwigs and big business while also carrying out a tempestuous affair with the President of the United States.

Implausible, made-for-TV fiction? Absolutely. But in some ways, it's surprisingly true to reality. The show is based on the life and work of Judy Smith, a crisis manager who worked for the White House during George H.W. Bush's presidency and whose clients have included Monica Lewinsky and Michael Vick. While the D.C. crisis managers I spoke with say they would never proffer potential clients with the same kind of wizardry Olivia does, they do say the show gets something right: how the Internet shapes scandals.

Take the Season Two premiere, where Olivia takes on a Democratic congressman worried about that his secret sex tape will be leaked by a conservative website. Olivia and her team spend most of the episode trying to get a court to impose an injunction to prevent the video from being published, but when that fails, they decide to speed up the story so it burns out faster. "It's all about controlling the narrative. We email the footage to a bunch of friendly sources," she explains to the congressman. "We leak it to a celebrity gossip site so it doesn't have the spin of politics on it," her colleague adds.

Peter LaMotte, who heads Washington's Levick Communications' digital practice, describes this kind of preemptive strike as "controlled detonation." "By setting off the bomb in a safe location, or ideally multiple different locations the damage is both diluted and distributed," LaMotte said. "In real life, if a reporter is doing a hatchet job on your client, the best thing to do is break up the story into as many pieces as possible give each piece to a different sympathetic reporter, prior to the filing of the larger hostile story."

And then there's that assassination plotline I mentioned before. With President Fitzgerald "Fitz" Grant (Tony Goldwyn) comatose from a murder attempt against him, the villainous hyper-conservative VP played by Kate Burton is itching to succeed the presidency. To keep the executive reins out of her clutches, the show hatches another unbelievable scheme. Using a forged signature from the first lady (Bellamy Young) on an official document and a careful, concentrated media blitz, Olivia and the chief of staff make it look as though the president is awake and leading the country from his hospital room. It works. While Olivia's plan isn't necessarily explicit about using the web, it does reflect an understanding that gullibility and virality go hand in hand these days more than ever.

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Aleksander Chan is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He writes about pop culture for The Austin Chronicle.

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