Let TV audiences give thanks for Abby Whelan, the Scandal character who has survived by surprising. Pigeonholed as the shrieking shrew in the ABC hit's earliest episodes, Abby (played by Darby Stanchfield) was surrounded by far more appealing characters. There was Stephen, the beguiling Brit (Henry Ian Cusick). There was Harrison (Columbus Short), he of bluster and pride and monologues about being a Gladiator. There was Quinn (Katie Lowes), the brunette newcomer With A Past.
And then there was Abby. It was hard to like Abby. Abby existed to be mean and abrasive and pretty good at her job. But as the gladiators of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) fell away, Abby survived. And this season, Abby has thrived. Her new position as White House press secretary has given her renewed purpose (and, on a more shallow note, spectacular hair). Last night's episode put the focus directly on Abby as her abusive ex-husband entered the picture. It was a showcase episode for Stanchfield, who got deeper into Abby's psyche than ever before.
It was a stellar episode, start to finish—the kind of episode that would have been impossible for Scandal to produce just last year.
The third season of Scandal was a mess; of this, there is little disagreement. Depending on one's taste, it was either a beautiful mess, taking the Shonda Soap form to its natural extreme ... or it was a disaster, sacrificing character development for shocks and twists and hashtags. But no matter whether one liked it or not (full disclosure: I did not), it was a mess.
How to Get Away with Murder's freshman season is much like Scandal's third. It works at an insanely high pitch—every moment is meant to inspire gasps and tweets and OMGs. But unlike Scandal (which, yes, had twists and turns from its very first episode, but the characters always took precedence), Murder is designed as a roller coaster. Moments like "why is your penis on a dead girl's phone" are what the show is made for. It's why Murder is the breakout hit of the season, ruling the ratings roost in the advertiser-friendly 18-49 demographic not just among new shows, but among all dramas on network TV.
Murder also represents a rather nifty bit of self-counter-programming on ABC's part. Scandal was a major hit last season, increasing its audience by 45 percent when most shows continued to hemorrhage viewers. But the twist-focused plotting—and the increased focus on other characters during Washington's real-life pregnancy—was untenable. Scandal is a show about the people within it, first and foremost Olivia Pope.
But Scandal was not sold as a character-focused drama. It was sold as a thrilling political soap. When those two shows intersected—like in season two's brilliant "stolen moments aren't a life" monologue—the result was something truly special. Unfortunately, season three made those moments scarce.
In last night's episode, during a confrontation with her ex-husband, Abby pulls a gun and threatens to shoot him. Season three Scandal would have featured that moment heavily in previews—and she probably would have shot him, too. She also would have called Huck (Guillermo Diaz) to help her, and Huck would have sawed the body into parts, and each part would be hidden in a different senator's office. Then it would turn out that the body parts were turned into bombs by B6-13, and Olivia would have to deliver emotional monologues to her father (Joe Morton) while he screamed back at her about defending the Republic. Or something like that.
Instead, we got Abby going to Olivia and confessing tearfully how right and good it felt to want to shoot her husband. Olivia, looking fearful, slowly took the gun away from her, then talked to her about her options. It was still tense and dramatic, but felt realistic and organic. I know you can't sell that with a hashtag, but damn if it isn't affecting.
ABC has to be happy with these results: Scandal is still a big hit, while Murder is even bigger. It would, of course, be better if Murder was a consistent show—the past three episodes have been anywhere from decent-to-awful, largely because the creative team insists on structuring episodes around their purposefully unlikable characters. As it stands, Murder is probably headed down the same road Scandal was pointed towards before its course correction: a complete and utter derailing within the next season or so. What Scandal season two—a truly masterful season of TV—showed is that a program can be crazy and emphasize plotting over appealing characters for a while, but it's still got to be good. If the quality isn't there—like with Murder right now—audiences are eventually going to tune out.
Perhaps that's why ABC and superproducer Shonda Rhimes aren't letting go of Scandal's craziest bits just yet. Olivia's father Rowan is still around, delivering the frenzied monologues that won Joe Morton the Emmy for Best Guest Actor this year, and they've recently announced her presumed-dead mother Maya (Khandi Alexander) will be returning, too. This is dangerous, to say the least. Maya and Rowan were simultaneously the best and worst parts of season three. Morton and Alexander are masterful actors ... but they weren't really connected to Scandal's heart. They were a really crazy spinoff that kept getting in the way of the main show.
Still, Rhimes seems to have gotten Scandal's groove back, and as long as Murder keeps drawing viewers, I can't see her or ABC abandoning the subtler-but-still-stellar Scandal 4.0 just yet. It's a show that deserves its time to entertain us, even if our reaction is less a virtual "#OMG" and more a gasp followed by an appreciative "wow."