Lisa Kudrow Is Saving Scandal From Itself

Playing an idealistic congresswoman from Montana, Kudrow freshens up a show too dependent on its cynical protagonists' stale love affair.
ABC

Separately, Scandal’s Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) are fascinating—sympathetic, but morally nuanced. Together, they form the worst part of one of most exciting shows on TV.

She devolves from a savvy and ambitious Beltway “fixer” into a weepy and lovesick invertebrate. He mutates from a fair and compassionate commander-in-chief into an angst-ridden and self-indulgent control freak. Their tortured back-and-forths could convincingly fill the pages of the cheapest romance novel. But as presidential chief-of-staff Cyrus Beene said at the end of Season 2, “Life isn’t a romance novel.”

Unfortunately, there is no Scandal without “Liv and Fitz.” Creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice) has built an entire universe around the affair. It’s the titular scandal, the narrative glue that binds together two separate but equally compelling worlds: that of the clandestine crisis-management firm, cleaning up after misbehaving elites; and that of the moderate Republican White House, rebuffing extremist elements from within its own party. Without #Olitz, these stories run parallel, unconnected.

Which is why Montana congresswoman Josie Marcus, played by Lisa Kudrow, is such a gratifying third-season addition. The introduction of a major character (played by a major actress) with interests outside the sphere of Liv and Fitz, renders fresh plot for the writers to explore. What’s more, this upstart candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination embodies the kick-ass, uncompromising feminist politico the show has been lacking. Witness this scene from last Thursday’s episode, described by Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart as “Lisa Kudrow goes HAM in an epic speech on sexism in politics.”

Josie is the character Liv could have been from the start—had she not entangled herself in a co-dependent relationship with the most powerful man in the world. Thankfully, when First Lady Mellie Grant (well aware of her husband’s infidelity) begs her to rejoin the White House and pilot Fitz’s reelection outfit to victory, Liv declines. As she and Fitz are once more “off again,” she takes a job managing the Marcus campaign instead. “To make history.” Truthfully, it’s a move more likely inspired by the possibility that Fitz had a direct hand in the death of Liv’s mother—because borderline ludicrous plot twists are as elemental to Scandal as Liv and Fitz.

That gnawing subplot aside, Josie’s arrival has saved Liv from herself, and saved Scandal from its worst habits. Liv, for now, can avoid the perverse, unholy trinity of psychological warfare that is Fitz, Cyrus, and Mellie. Scandal, for now, can forgo the sleazy late-night phone call, the platitudinous “I can’t do this anymore,” the feverish reconciliation in a West Wing utility closet.

Perhaps Josie’s appeal lies in her relative simplicity. She lacks the moral complexity we’ve come to expect from denizens of the Scandal universe. Just as Liv and Fitz are, at times, intolerable, the vindictive Mellie and amoral Cyrus are, at times, somewhat heroic. Even the once innocuous Quinn Perkins, Pope & Associates’ junior-most fixer, has cultivated her own strain of high-functioning sociopathy. Josie, however, is an ideal. She is the best parts of Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand amalgamated—from what we’ve seen so far. We’ll see what fresh bushwhacking the writers have in store for her upon returning from her speechwriting hiatus. But for now, she is the anti-cynic. And in a show where cynicism and political opportunism abound, that’s refreshing.

Despite being somewhat vanilla in the morality department, Josie still makes for a convincing and satisfying character. That’s in part due to Kudrow’s acting style—the signature pauses and inflections that have followed her from Phoebe Buffay, through Valerie Cherish and Fiona Wallice. But the writing also comes into play. Until now, Scandal viewers have felt cheated out of an unapologetic feminist voice. Speaking candidly about the sexism still ubiquitous in American politics and media, Josie Marcus is that voice. It’s also worth noting that she’s not all upstanding all the time—watching her slut-shame the philandering Fitz on talk show after talk show is just good TV.

Of course, inevitably, Liv and Fitz will stumble back into each other’s arms. It will be teary, and it will be tiresome. Such are the laws of ShondaLand. If murder and blackmail can’t keep them apart, it’s unlikely electoral partisanship will do the trick. But, for now, it’ll be fun to watch Josie and Liv (#Jolivia?) go HAM on an increasingly stale Grant administration.

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Jake Flanagin is a writer for The New York Times's Op-Talk.

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