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.
Crisis managers, like Washington's Eric Dezenhall, who previously worked for the Reagan Administration as a communications strategist, have seen how blurred the distinction between fact and fiction can become online. "Anyone converting thoughts into blogs or comments carries the proxy of authority, and even though everyone claims not to believe what they read online, there is nothing in my experience to contradict the reality that people, at least at some level, do believe what they read online," Dezenhall said by email.
The show also nails how the digital age shapes relationships out of the public spotlight. A recent plot involving an intelligence officer played by Scott Foley, hired by the president to set up spy cams for a round-the-clock live feed of the inside of Olivia's apartment, is reminiscent of the neurotic diligence of Claire Danes's character in Homeland, which itself feels close to 24. (It helps that the two series share producers.) But those shows are more about the hardware: How much money, in the form of technology, can we use in the fight against terrorism? Shonda Rhimes's show is more interested in the emotional effects of tech. When the president sends operatives to spy on Olivia, for example, it isn't to keep tabs on her occasionally no-good clients; it's so that their romantic link is never broken. Though Fitz and Olivia are physically separated, they're connected by streaming sound and videos. It takes the idea of long-distance relationships subsisting over Skype calls and Facebook stalking of exes and brings them to newly creepy, obsessive heights.
Rhimes's show is interested in the emotional effects of tech. When the president sends operatives to spy on Olivia, it's so that their romantic link is never broken.
But in Rhimes's hyperreality, it makes sense. Because like she did with her previous hits, Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, every prop, plot, and ancillary character is overloaded with meaning. When Fitz and Olivia, their affair estranged after he discovers her involvement in rigging his presidential victory have a steamy reunion inside an electrical closet, where thickets of wiring from security and computer systems line the walls, it's a perfect snapshot of how the show leavens soap-opera balladry with its crafty symbolism. As they grip and slam against and paw at the fragile electrical and data wiring, their affair quite literally puts others at risk. Much like the show, the scene is on-the-nose, hot, and more incisive than we give it credit for.