May 13, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Scandal”


Even by the standards of current network TV, the ratings drop for SCANDAL has been steep and swift.  It’s down 50% from where it was 2 seasons ago, and down 30% this season.  It’s still one of ABC’s higher-rated hours, because it had been so huge at its peak, so its renewal was never in question.  (It’s far bigger than The Catch, also from the Shonda Rhimes ranch, which somehow won a renewal today.)  Still, that kind of decline, especially with a relatively steady lead-in from Grey’s Anatomy and mid-level competition on the other networks, suggests an unhappy fan base.

It’s likely that the fundamental changes in Scandal itself have fueled many of the departures.  The series isn’t just unrecognizable from its original mode of frothy procedural about Washington DC fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and her “gladiator” staff, it’s also no longer the grand-opera soap about the impossible love between Olivia and President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwin) that took the first Scandal‘s place.  When Rhimes introduced Olivia’s father Rowan (Joe Morton) as the show’s Big Bad, a sociopathic, supremely manipulative master of the country’s secret police, the decision changed Scandal for good.  In a twist that probably wasn’t meant to be as meta as it became, Rowan dragged the series down to his level, his crimes and schemes so unbalancing (and his incarnation by Morton so powerful) that Scandal became a show about monsters.  Virtually every major character other than saintly–and now gone–Vice President Susan Ross (Artemis Pebdani, promoted this season from comedy relief to Scandal conscience) has been implicated in at least one brutal murder.  Olivia joined those ranks this season, beating former Vice President Andrew Nichols (Jon Tenney) to death with a chair.  As one atrocity piled on another, with no particular moral, let alone legal, consequence, Scandal lost its bearings and its stakes.  Characters faded as individuals, the show’s original sense of romance became stale, and the occasional invocation of “gladiators” to describe Olivia and her conscienceless colleagues seemed increasingly like a bad joke.

This season brought another rabbit hole for Scandal, as Rhimes threw the show’s resources at a fictional presidential election that was loaded with parallels to real life, including a less than beloved former First Lady in candidate Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), and a ruthless, wacko billionaire in her opponent Hollis Doyle (Gregg Henry).  Hollis proved much easier to be rid of than his true-life counterpart, and as a whole, Shonda Rhimes found herself in the unprecedented position of being less shocking and compelling than the nightly news.

Tonight’s Season 5 finale, written by Rhimes and Executive Producer Mark Wilding, and directed by Tom Verica, had its moments.  Mellie and Cyrus (Jeff Perry) each got a trademark rant, and those are fun even in a vacuum.  But for a show that once thrived on shattering, jaw-dropping plot twists, it was awfully hard to care about the machinations behind who the Vice Presidential candidates would be to run with Mellie and Democratic nominee Francisco Vargas (Ricardo Chavira).  (By the way, even in what fictional universe would the Democratic and Republican conventions take place on the same night?  But I digress.)  The supposedly big reveals were small potatoes: that Vargas’s VP ended up being Cyrus, and that Rowan had schemed for Jake Ballard (Scott Foley, completely unable these days to make sense of his character’s shift through various degrees of lunacy and unrequited love week by week) to run with Mellie all along, fooling Olivia into thinking she’d gotten one over on him.

The prospect of Season 6 and the Olivia vs. Cyrus vs. Rowan election feels more like something to be endured than anticipated.  Scandal still works in bursts, because Rhimes and her fellow writer/producers create fabulous harangues for the actors to deliver, arias of vituperation that Washington, Perry, Young, Morton and the others deliver with fire.  The pace remains white-hot even when there’s no particular place to run, and there are moments, like this season’s treatment of Olivia’s abortion, that still reach for a character’s truth.  But Scandal is no longer an emotionally involving drama, and it hasn’t had the nerve to become the black comedy it sometimes seems desperate to be.  It needs its own fixer.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."