“Scandal” Premiere Review: Usual Twists, Liv-Fitz, and Diana Conspiracy Theories

review-bMINUSOh, “Scandal”. You really must credit Shonda Rhimes and her team. Never before has a show been so consistently absurd, over-the-top, disorganized, and just altogether a complete trainwreck… and yet still been impossible to stop watching.

We rejoin the show to begin its fifth season, and it’s still as “Scandal”-y as ever. All the classic ingredients are here: Liv and Fitz, a riff on a popular conspiracy theory, mind-blowing twists, and Quinn doing nothing particularly useful.

The scandal-of-the-week tonight revolves around a car accident in which a paparazzi-coveted princess and her bodyguard are killed, but it may be more than it seems. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is an exact copy of a “popular” conspiracy theory surrounding the death of Princess Diana. (As the theory goes, Diana was getting it on with the son of an Egyptian billionaire and had gotten pregnant, and thus was murdered for disgracing the royal family.) Likewise, in the “Scandal” universe, the princess of “Caledonia” was murdered for an affair with her bodyguard; the Scandal twist being that the Queen herself ordered it. Oh boy! After four seasons it’s just all getting too predictable.

Meanwhile, Olivia and Fitz are back together, which is…. something. I don’t know. It’s exhausting at this point. But apparently it’s going to stick; Fitz goes so far as to serve Mellie papers (at her Senate confirmation, no less). More significantly, it is revealed to the world via Sally that Fitz and Olivia are an item as the episode’s “shocking ending”. We’ll have to wait till next week to see what that entails, but my guess is it’ll be just like the last time the world found out about them a couple of seasons ago.

Mellie, obviously, is pissed that Fitz wants to divorce her. She yells at Lizzie Bear, who responds quite ferociously. Nice to see Portia de Rossi get the first monologue of the season. She resorts to going to Cyrus for help, and they mostly just sulk for a while about how Fitz doesn’t love them anymore.

Overall, the “Scandal” opener plays it surprisingly close to the belt. Aside of the end of the episode’s twist, which still wasn’t that shocking, it’s pretty much standard fare for the show. Maybe after four seasons they’re simply running out of twist material, which is perfectly understandable. It will be interesting to see if the show can keep up its steam despite the beginning signs of age shining through.

Other Notes

  • Always good to see Artemis Pebdani (“Always Sunny”) pop up as her absurd VP character, even if just for a brief moment
  • Huck and Jake are apparently teaming up, out of which nothing good can possibly result
  • Kerry Washington is pretty good at this whole acting thing
Drama

Uninspired Casting/Acting Holding Back “Fear the Walking Dead”?

There’s a moment in the third episode of “Fear the Walking Dead” that really sums up the key problem with the show. A man shoots a walker and blows his head off. This represents the first time anyone in the room has seen such a gratuitous display of gore and violence, so naturally when we pan out to the character reaction shots, they look… bored?

The main story in “Fear the Walking Dead” is compelling, generally speaking. It’s the beginning of the zombie outbreak; people are just now being introduced to this new, terrifying reality. It’s like everyone is acting as Rick in the original series’ pilot episode.

There are some problems with the execution though. The show is exciting and interesting, but it suffers due to the focuses of the story seeming to drag everything else down. Part of it is the writing — the show focuses on a family that, other than kind of being a mess, is so far not particularly worth focusing on. With any work of fiction, you must ask why the writer is telling the story through the characters they choose. In the case of “Fear the Walking Dead”, there seems to be a lack of clarity as to why this family is our focus.

The key issue, though, is the acting of the leads. The show took a risk in casting small-name actors, as opposed to the original having both Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus with previous film success to anchor the cast. No disrespect to Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis, but they certainly aren’t big names, and they don’t seem to work well here thus far.

That being said, the show is still young. We’re three episodes in. The original series took some time to figure itself out too, and the acting has always been inconsistent there as well. Perhaps time and patience will vindicate the casting decisions of “Fear the Walking Dead”.

Discussion Drama

Analyzing TV: The Police Procedural/Crime Show

Television is a vast landscape offering a wide array of genres from which to choose. In my “Analyzing TV” series, I will discuss some of these types of shows in detail and determine what makes them stick around.

The world is often a terrifying place. We turn on the news to hear of the latest shooting or stabbing or drug deal gone awry, and often hear the same stories over and over as the police struggle to develop any leads. It can often feel overwhelming, as if there is no protection for us or as if justice is simply unattainable for these victims.

This, in simplified terms, is why we always turn to “police procedurals”. They offer us a world wherein the police always serve and protect, and the bad guys almost always get caught by the time the credits roll. We know this isn’t reality, but we also know (or at least feel) it should be. Gone are the gray areas of police brutality and innocent people being harassed. Instead, our heroic detectives are on the case and won’t sleep until justice has been properly served.

Another reason police procedurals gain so much popularity lies in their familiarity. Every week there will be a new case, the detectives will pursue the truth, and will (probably) find their guy. It’s not like tuning into a show like The Walking Dead where you’re paying attention constantly for any surprises; chances are you can join a procedural halfway through and be able to deduce what is going on, as well as what happened previously.

The genre started out much less complicated than it is today. In the early days of television, crime shows were often holdovers from the days of radio shows. The plots were often simple: good guy vs. bad guy, and you can bet your patooty (they couldn’t say “ass” on TV back then) the good guy was coming out on top every time. The crime itself was not depicted nearly as graphically or realistically as in today’s often-unsettling shows.

As time has gone on, though, crime shows have advanced into the modern phenomenon of “police procedurals”, led by early adopters such as Hill Street Blues and Dick Wolf’s famed, once-untouchable Law & Order franchise. These shows offered a grittier look at the mean realities of the streets, not shying away from displaying the most violent acts. They would also, as the name implies, offer a look into how the police go about their jobs in a deeper sense than just showing them finding and arresting people. They showed the psychological impact, the bureaucratic hassle, the tedious nature of the hunt for a perp. In the 90s, Homicide: Life on the Streets would join and offer an even more realistic portrait of police action.

In today’s always-expanding pool of TV series, a viewer can pick their poison as far as crime shows are concerned. Shows such as the original Law & Order, now confined to re-runs thanks to a poor, hasty decision by NBC, offer a straight, no-nonsense view of “the law” (or, obviously, the idealized TV version). The CSI franchise offers details into the art of analyzing a crime scene. Shows such as Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Criminal Minds offer a peek into the brains of the monsters our heroes pursue.

Ultimately, they all offer that same relatively idealistic view of the world and of our justice system. However, they at least offer more realistic elements as well. These newer shows will acknowledge that not everyone gets caught, that those who get caught aren’t always bad people, and that the police are not above criticism. It’s a step in the right direction for realism, and viewers will likely keep tuning in for the familiarity. These modern shows at least allow the viewer the belief that even when justice isn’t served, everyone still put forth their best effort and it was simply an anomaly in a long history of successful cases. One day maybe we can achieve this ideal, but for now, we tune into our crime shows and tune out of our world.

Discussion Drama

3 Times “Law & Order: SVU” Got a Little Too Ridiculous

TV procedural dramas can be difficult to judge. They serve a distinct purpose- they exist as something for people to put on at the end of a busy day and be entertained, without having to think too much. If you want mind-shattering intensity, you watch Breaking Bad repeats; if you just want to unwind, you watch  Criminal Minds.

Perhaps the most crucial element of any episode of a procedural drama is the “twist”, the big shift or turn in the narrative that gets the audience into it and, more importantly, keeps them coming back for more twists. In a TV landscape overcrowded with shows as it is, these shows must compete with each other to come up with bigger, better twists. Sometimes, however, this can result in taking things to an irrational extreme.

One of the biggest culprits in this department, now entering its seventeenth year on NBC, is Dick Wolf’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Notable for being the spinoff of its (now only slightly) longer-running mothership series as well as a rare example of a show surviving for a few years in a Friday night time-slot, SVU works off of an already intense and morbidly fascinating subject matter: the pursuit and subsequent bringing-to-justice of sexual predators. One would think no artificial heightening of the stakes would be necessary, but nonetheless there are certainly plenty of such examples. Here are a few quick favorites of mine:

“Zebras” – J/K about the new lab tech, he’s a psycho

SVU seems to do its best to constantly preach the message that if there is something “off” about a person, they are almost certainly up to something bad. Such was the case of lab technician Dale Stuckey, a minor character introduced in season 10. Dale was very “off”, and extremely annoying both in- and out-of-universe. As awkwardly as Dale was shoehorned into the action, it stood as a dull surprise when he ended up being a crazed murderer. What was shocking, however, was the unceremonious exit of long-time lab tech Ryan O’Halloran (Mike Doyle), who fell victim to Stuckey and was essentially forgotten about by the start of the next season.

“Screwed” – Ludacris would make a fantastic attorney

Season finales are tricky. You want to give the audience something wild, something that makes them want to come back the next season, something that leaves them blown away when the episode fades to black. SVU decided to just bring back Ludacris and shake things up in a way that we all knew was never going to be lasting. The episode, based around a court case involving Ludacris’ character that manages to ensnare the entire squad (even Munch kind of did something) in its net, involves several twists and turns mostly just for the sake of trying to keep us interested. Fin’s family is super messed up and maybe a bit incestual, but did anyone think he had a happy family prior to this episode? Stabler gets into it with Fin for checking his phone records to see if he tipped off his nephew, something that Stabler had no real reason to do and isn’t even able to justify in-universe. Ludacris, Esq. drags up all sorts of dirt such as Kathleen Stabler’s DUI and Benson’s money transfer to her brother that randomly exists (more on that shortly), but the only thing that comes of it is poor Kathleen gets sent to jail. Stabler’s wife is pregnant. Who cares?

“Philadelphia” / “Florida” – Hey, Benson has a brother now!

Season eight was a weird one for SVU. Not only was the finale a bit excessive as covered above, it also featured an altered structure due to Mariska Hargitay’s pregnancy. Some episodes didn’t feature Hargitay’s Olivia Benson at all, while others featured Benson almost exclusively as she had been given her own Emmy baitstory arc involving going undercover with an environmental terrorism group (I’m sensing the need for a part 2 for this post). Once she came back from that, it seemed like all was well in the SVUniverse again… until Simon shows up. You see, it turns out Benson has a half-brother via her rapist dad that she has just now been reacquainted with, and he’s on the run from the law (for alleged rape, no less). Sounds like a great premise for a soap opera arc, but it may be a bit much for SVU. Simon was portrayed by Michael Weston, this episode having occurred during a strange moment in time in 2007-2008 when television casting agents seemed to have a brief obsession with Weston (see also: House, Scrubs, Psych). Over the course of these two episodes, Benson fights ruthlessly to defend the brother she never knew from an allegation of a crime she does not know for sure he didn’t commit; all this from a detective infamous for her “guilty until proven innocent” attitude toward… well, just about anyone else. In the end, they go with a classic SVU twist to wrap things up: that mean ol’ captain from Philly was just framing Simon because she was upset about her own family’s sexual abuse history. Simon goes on to appear once or twice again down the line as a reminder of this absurd little detour.

So there you have it, there are three solid examples of SVU delving a bit too far into the deep end. Don’t get me wrong, the show does a great thing by bringing about awareness to urgent, troubling issues within society. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still laugh when it goes a little overboard.

Drama

Revisiting “Ozymandias”, Breaking Bad’s Crowning Achievement

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias”

Breaking Bad is frequently cited as one of the best television dramas ever made. “Ozymandias” is often cited as its best episode, thereby logically making it one of the best episodes of television drama ever made as well. It is therefore important to understand what all happened in “Ozymandias”, why it happened, and how it made for such great television.

Positioned three episodes prior to the series finale, “Ozymandias” served the role of the series’ emotional climax, wrapping up many long-dangling loose ends and dictating where the story would logically end.

The Set-up

Obviously, there are spoilers coming. In the episodes prior to “Ozymandias”, Walt had sought to exit the meth business permanently, but the matter of securing his money remained. This grew further complicated upon his brother-in-law Hank finally putting two and two together (during a number two, no less) and now being hot on his trail. Hank finally manages to trick Walt, with the help of a beleaguered Jesse, by dangling the threat of losing his money in front of him. Walt first calls for backup in the form of Todd’s Nazi uncle and his motorcycle/meth gang(?), but ultimately calls them off and surrenders to Hank and Gomez. However, Todd’s uncle was not taking “nevermind” for an answer, instead opting to show up anyway, guns loaded. Walt screams for Uncle Jack to stop. Jack doesn’t. Hank and Gomez ready themselves. A standoff ensues until finally, shots are fired. We fade to black.

The Action

We begin with the fallout from the shooting. Gomez is dead, Hank is wounded. Jack quickly takes care of Hank, who dies having come so close to capturing Heisenberg, but falling just short. Marie is devastated, as expected, and furious with Skyler for what she may have known. All but one of Walt’s money barrels is stolen by Jack’s gang. Jesse becomes a prisoner to Jack’s gang, a fate only slightly better than death. Walt Jr. learns the truth. Walt attempts to get his family to flee with him, but they are terrified of him. Instead, he kidnaps baby Holly after a terrifying battle with Skyler over a knife. Later, he returns Holly and attempts to deflect suspicion from his poor wife.

Breakdown

So much happened in just 47 minutes of runtime. The episode begins with a flashback to the beginning days of the meth operation, with Walt talking to Skyler on the phone and agreeing on Holly as a baby name. This becomes significant later on in the episode. Hank dies, the end of his painful arc of constantly searching for the man right under his nose. Walt Jr finding out permanently ends the careful divide Walt had attempted to maintain between his family and his business, with Jr being the final card to fall. Walt had officially lost the whole family. Skyler even pulls a knife on Walt, believing he is to blame for Hank’s death (technically true), leading to one of the best-directed struggles over a weapon you’ll ever see on TV. Walt abducts Holly and takes her with him on the run, but changes course when Holly cries as she utters her first words — “mama”. Even innocent little Holly can see only the evil in Walt, and wants to be away from him. He does the right thing (sort of) and leaves Holly at a fire station, while also calling Skyler and intentionally deflecting blame from her. This would be the beginning of Walt trying to right his wrongs before his death. The episode packs so much story into a small frame of time, being both masterfully written and directed. It is challenging to think of a better episode of television ever made, and the episode marked the climax of the best drama of our era.

Drama