Scandal returns tonight for its fourth season, and if you're a Scandal fan, you knew this before we even told you. You're ready to live-tweet tonight, and you have your neckbrace ready for when the twists start a-turnin' and you get whiplash. If nothing else, it promises to be one hell of a ride with Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) & Associates. [Spoilers from here on out.]
But is it contradictory to the very nature of Scandal to want it to be a bit less of a ride? Sure, the show's built on the very WTF factor that's come to define it, but last season proved a bit too much for some to take – myself included. I was out when Maya Pope started chewing her own wrists and Huck started torturing Quinn. There's WTF, and then there's "what show am I watching?" There's soap opera, and then there's torture porn. There's a wild ride, and then there's a histrionic mess.
It's basically impossible to predict where the show will go. We know that at the end of last season, Olivia had declared herself the true scandal and got on a plane with Jake to fly far, far away (as her father wanted her to do in the third season premiere). But we can hope for what approach creator Shonda Rhimes and her team will take this season. So in honor of the show's fourth season, we've come up with four hopes for what this new batch of episodes will look like.
1. Less Olitz, more Olivia. Due in large part to Kerry Washington's pregnancy, Olivia as a character had much less to do. When she was around, she was mostly shouting back and forth with Fitz about how much they owned each other but couldn't have each other and Vermont and jam. Or she was shouting at her father about B613 and the Republic and her mother and Fitz. Basically, we got a lot of Olivia Shouting With and About Men. Let's scale that back a bit.
There's been some great stuff that's come out of Olivia's more fraught relationships, particularly with her father. Joe Morton is incredible as Rowan Pope, and his "twice as good" monologue from the beginning of last season was a high water mark for the show in how it presents race. But unfortunately, having nothing but the shouting diluted it a bit. Putting Olivia back at the forefront – as Rhimes has already said she's doing – is smart. But let her be smart, too. Let her be in control of the situation. Focused fixer Olivia is enjoyable and exciting. Wounded and floundering Olivia, though temporarily interesting, just isn't enough to sustain the show.
2. Focus on cases of the week. Both Scandal and Revenge seemed to become a bit procedural-phobic after their first few episodes. The case-of-the-week format, once one of the cornerstones of Scandal's first and early second seasons, was virtually abandoned last year. The show has forgotten said structure before – most notably during season two's "Defiance" arc – but there's no shame in returning to it this season. The Good Wife, in even its most serial moments, has never forgotten the cases-of-the-week. That's truly to its benefit, and it could be to Scandal's once again as well.
3. Streamline the plot arcs. Speaking of "Defiance," Rhimes and her team would do well to study their own work. Whereas "Defiance" was an insane thrill ride, all the elements were pretty easy to keep straight. The show didn't insult you by constantly reminding you of plot points, but everything was fairly linear and comprehensible. Contrast that with the "Albatross" arc in the second half of the second season.
You can see the clear differences in how the two were planned just from watching the episodes. "Defiance" knew where it was going from start to finish. "Albatross" felt messy from the word go. That's not even getting into last season's arcs, which were borderline incoherent at times. If season four is to be successful, it has to keep things sensical. We expect high-flying drama from Scandal, but if there's nothing to hold on to, there's nothing worth investing in.
4. Tighten focus on the main cast. Here are some characters who got major plot time last season: Charlie, Rowan Pope, Maya Pope, Sally Langston, James Novak. All good characters played by good-to-great actors, not a one in the actual main cast of the show. Now, plenty of main cast characters did get good screentime, particularly Mellie, Huck, Quinn, and (unfortunately) Harrison. But I've now listed nine characters who got a relatively high level of focus last season. If this were an ensemble show, that would be fine.
Yet this is the story of Olivia Pope and her associates. News that this is Abby's season is a bit disconcerting, because it's still not putting Olivia at the center, but at least she's an original cast member who we could stand to learn more about. The tighter the focus is on our main cast, the better. Best of all: letting Olivia's story be hers, and having others serve that story.