DECEMBER 30, 2013
ABC’s SCANDAL began as a show about a team of political fixers — self-proclaimed “gladiators in suits” — led by the impeccably groomed Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington. Olivia’s only weaknesses are red wine and the president of the United States, Tony Goldwyn’s Fitzgerald Grant, revealed in the pilot to be her partner in a steamy love affair. The show has since become the televised equivalent of a magician pulling a never-ending scarf out of his sleeve. Each episode’s mini-crisis yields a puzzle piece; when fit together, these pieces reveal Olivia’s origin story.
Olivia is just one of many fictional gladiators-in-suits currently on television. From sudsy network affairs to gloomy cable dramas to massive franchises, a number of on-screen narratives center on a woman who struggles to reconcile her powerful institutional position with her own private impulses. Showtime’s Homeland is a case in point. In place of Scandal’s frenzied, bold-faced plotting, Homeland substitutes a sketchier pace. Like the free jazz that accompanies its opening credits and frequently plays through the stereo of its main character, bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), Homeland’s plot twists have a jittery, improvised feel.
After an impeccable first season — during which Carrie struggles to convince everyone around her that Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a U.S. Marine who returns to the United States after eight years as a prisoner of war, has been “turned” by al-Qaeda — the show took a detour into crazy town, where it bought a house in a safe neighborhood with good schools and settled down. Brody ends up once again imprisoned in the third season after being framed for a deadly bombing at CIA headquarters in the season two finale, and Carrie is recast as his angel of mercy.
The fact that Homeland, when summarized, sounds just as zany as Scandal is a pill that critics have found hard to swallow. Unlike Homeland, which in the beginning seemed committed to a feeling of heightened realism, Scandal — created by Shonda Rhimes, the woman behind Grey’s Anatomy — always made sense as a kooky network drama: its endless parade of designer-suited Washington VIPs and bopping funk hits contrast sharply with Homeland’s sullen political operatives and moody jazz. In Scandal’s vision of Washington, the political is always personal. This is a show in which the president takes his mistress to see the Constitution as foreplay; the chief of staff gives his journalist husband a baby to divert his attention from a presidential scandal; and the head of a secret spy agency turns out to be none other than Olivia Pope’s father.
Played by Joe Morton, Olivia’s father literalizes her situation — her actual patriarch runs the patriarchal institution in which she finds herself increasingly ensnared. The case of Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), the protagonist of Showtime’s new series Masters of Sex, is more complicated. Based on Thomas Maier’s 2009 non-fiction book of the same name, the show centers on sex researchers Virginia Johnson and William Masters, who published a seminal study in 1966 called Human Sexual Response. The show softens the team’s real-life history — while Masters and Johnson did form a sexual relationship under the guise of their study, as in the show, Maier’s book holds that Johnson didn’t have much of a choice if she wanted to keep her job, which she desperately did. (Presumably the show, which is currently set in the 1950s, will also excise the conversion therapy program that the couple ran from 1968 to 1977.)
Still, the Bill Masters of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, played by Michael Sheen, is not an easy character to like — he’s cold to his loving wife, impatient with his employees, and impossibly arrogant. And yet, with effortless charm and not a hint of Carrie’s manic unpredictability, Virginia is endlessly patient. Like Olivia, she persists, but without that character’s dogged urgency. Starting as Bill’s secretary, she’s grateful to become a partner in his study and ambivalent when he suggests that the next step is for the two of them to take part in the study. She ends up participating in over a hundred “sessions” with Bill, and in Showtime’s version, she does so enthusiastically. But Bill goes out of his way to snatch any sense of agency and authority from Virginia: in the ninth episode, “involuntary,” Bill hands her an envelope full of cash as compensation for all the times they had sex — as he would for any other person taking part in the study, and with all the subtlety of a john paying his whore.
The lack of authority afforded to Virginia is a tragedy. But, on HBO’s Veep, the fact that the title character, Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), has no real influence is a running joke. The president is never shown, although his presence casts a long shadow over Selina and her bumbling staff. Veep, based on the British show The Thick of It, concocts a blizzard of flustered incompetence behind the silky surface of American politics. Most of her staff’s scrambling involves polishing this surface — in one episode in the second season, the team goes into panic mode when someone leaks to the media the hand signals Selina uses to get out of conversations.
Selina is eternally surrounded by her employees, who are privy to her every crisis, no matter how personal. She has an on-again, off-again relationship with her sleazy ex-husband Andrew (David Pasquesi); in the second season, he asks her, “How easy is it for the vice president of the United States of America to get some casual sex?” Theirs is a relationship of convenience (Selina might say desperation), dictated by the terms of a job that encroaches on every aspect of her life.
Olivia Pope’s relationship with President Grant may be more passionate than Selina and Andrew’s, but it’s also tinged with a sense of helplessness. Although Olivia runs her own firm, her affair with Grant gives the show an ongoing excuse to throw her in the White House at his behest. Her situation is almost too perfectly symbolic of a citizen called to serve her country: The president needs you, Olivia. No, he really needs you. But when the Oval Office calls Olivia Pope, it’s most likely a booty call.
At the end of Scandal’s second season, it seemed as if Olivia and Fitz had finally figured out a way to be together — the show has worked hard to demonstrate that they’ll otherwise be miserable until the day they die. Of course, the plan had to fail. Does anyone really want to watch that show — the one where Olivia and Fitz retire to a small town in Vermont and raise a clan of beautiful biracial babies?
Judging by the online outcry, we don’t want a domesticated Carrie, either. After the perfect tension of the first season, critics have protested Homeland’s unraveling in the second and third. The show no longer feels shrewdly calculated but wildly spontaneous — something more along the lines of Scandal. At the start of season three, Carrie’s longtime mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) tells the Intelligence Committee on live TV that a bipolar agent was engaged in a sexual relationship with Brody, the most wanted man in America. Carrie flips and goes to the press — a move that gets her committed to a psychiatric facility. The fourth episode reveals this to be part of a long con: Saul and Carrie were working together to lure the Iranian mastermind behind the CIA bombing to the United States. In this season, Carrie is less of a human being and more of a weapon of the CIA than ever before.
But Homeland won’t retreat from soap opera territory without a fight. There’s a reason Carrie wants so desperately to clear Brody of responsibility for the CIA bombing, a reason she’s kept a map on her living room wall tracking the locations where Brody could be holed up: she’s pregnant, likely with Brody’s baby. In the ninth episode of the current season, “One Last Time,” Saul asks for Carrie’s help in convincing Brody to participate in what is surely a suicide mission. And he does it by appealing to Carrie’s sense of national duty. Forget about your feelings for this guy, he says, and do this for your country. Communication between the United States and Iran depends on it!
In Brody, Carrie finds a counterpart, a man who understands what it means to devote yourself to your country. By the end of season three, Brody pretty much becomes Derek Zoolander — there are echoes of kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia! in Saul’s plan to unleash Brody on the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. “One Last Time” vividly highlights Carrie and Brody’s connection with a shot of Brody thrashing around on a hospital bed in a futile attempt to resist medication. It’s a clear echo of the season’s second episode, in which Carrie is forcibly restrained and medicated, courtesy of the CIA. Like Carrie, Brody knows what it’s like to be jailed by the very institution to which you’ve given your life.
But we don’t want to see Carrie happily pregnant and reunited with her soul mate. We want her to chase handfuls of pills with tequila and white wine and kick some terrorist ass. That’s why so many people wanted Brody killed off in the first season: he complicates things, as people in the real world tend to do. TV-watchers are a cold and demanding species.
Then again, this tangle of personal desire and professional obligation is not limited to television. The book trilogy-turned-Hollywood franchise The Hunger Games centers on a teenage girl, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the movies), who unwittingly becomes the symbol of an impending revolution in the country of Panem, a sort of dystopian vision of an America split into 12 impoverished districts.
The franchise’s second installment, Catching Fire, makes it clear that Katniss will not enjoy a peaceful life now that she’s done her duty by participating in the annual underage bloodbath that is the Hunger Games. She is called to participate once again, along with 23 victors of previous Hunger Games. By the end of Catching Fire, Katniss learns that a revolution has been brewing, and that, unbeknownst to her, the destitute people of the 12 districts regard her as the face of the movement.
The most compelling aspect of the series is Katniss’s ambivalence toward her role as the symbol of a revolution that she knows will cause widespread death and destruction, even if it eventually succeeds. This ambivalence was easily transmitted in the books, which are narrated from Katniss’s perspective. It did not come across as well in the first film, directed by Gary Ross and released in 2012. Director Francis Lawrence does a better job in the second film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The film ends, as the book does, with Katniss finally discovering the truth about the uprising: Without her knowledge, she has mobilized the people of Panem. Because of her, they feel burning anger in place of helplessness. And as a demonstration of his power, the president has destroyed Katniss’s home district. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ends with a close-up of Katniss’s face as it registers shock, sadness, and, finally, fury. We’re left with the sense that Katniss is angry not only at the destruction of her home, but at the fact that she has been worked like a puppet by the people she cares for the most.
The stakes are comparably high on Scandal, a show in which the president is shot on the way to his birthday party, revealed to have been the unwitting winner of a fixed election, and exposed to the media as an adulterer — all in one season. As the melodrama whirls around them, Olivia’s hyper-competent fixers insist that they’re simply components of their boss’s slick machine. Unlike Katniss, they’re proud to be representatives of a larger cause. After all, they’re gladiators in suits, superheroes whose collective power is the ability to suppress human feelings to get the job done. In the second season, fixer Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield), confronts her colleague and friend Harrison Wright (Columbus Short), who lied to Abby in order to turn her against a boyfriend who was digging a little too deep into Olivia’s past. Abby appears unfazed: “I now live in a world where I know that you’re a gladiator first and a person second,” she tells Harrison. “I can do that, too. I can be a person second.”
But on a show that highlights the disastrous ways personal and professional lives intersect, how can we believe her? Despite the fact that Scandal loves burning through its storylines, the show taken as a whole is a slow-burning cigar, each “holy shit” revelation extending deep into the personal lives of Olivia’s team of battered and bruised souls. At the center of Scandal lies a question: Are we human or cog? Can we act on our instincts, or are we just pins on a map, moved around and manipulated by forces beyond our control?
There’s something undeniably invigorating about watching a person toss out the rule book and act on impulse. When Jennifer Lawrence appeared on Late Show with David Letterman to promote The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the host asked, “Has it been crazy?” “Yeah,” Lawrence replied, “it’s been really exhausting.” “But delightful crazy?” “No. Not quite. I feel like if no one sees this movie, they’re gonna kill me.”
So much of Lawrence’s appeal lies in the way she willingly plays the Hollywood promotional game, but in a way that constantly draws attention to how fucked up the game really is. You can tell she relishes the opportunity to pull back the curtain and show everyone how artificial and strange everything looks from the other side. During an interview on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart told Lawrence, “I got a CNN breaking news alert when you got your hair cut.” “I know,” she replied. “That was seriously the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life.”
Weird, because it highlights the extent to which an actor of her celebrity belongs to the public. When a young female actor in particular reaches a certain level of fame, she becomes an entirely new creature. When Jennifer Lawrence gets her hair cut, it’s news. Watching Lawrence go on a media blitz was like watching Katniss on her obligatory tour of the districts in Catching Fire. Lawrence made constant references to “they,” the team of people polishing her up and hoisting her in front of the public: “I have to wear a bell around my neck, but they do let me run around a little”; “They just put a shot in my butt and they’re like, ‘Dance, monkey, dance!’” It’s easy to imagine that obscure “they” as Katniss’s team of coaches and stylists; you can picture Selina Meyer’s staff in the same light, not as political advisers but glorified celebrity handlers.
Whether spontaneously squirting hand sanitizer on Stewart’s desk mid-interview or telling Letterman that she’s not so much exhilarated as exhausted, Lawrence channels the delicious disobedience that make the lead characters of Scandal, Homeland, Masters of Sex, and Veep so compelling. Selina goes off script during an interview toward the end of Veep’s second season, apologizing for the White House’s handling of an earlier hostage crisis and turning what was supposed to be a puff piece into a victory for the vice president. She may not have much in the way of real power, but she insists that she can still be her own person and not simply a puppet. Virginia Johnson’s rebellion takes the form of sexual liberation. The character may function in a period-appropriate way — as a supportive arm of Bill’s study — but she’s an anachronism in terms of her sexuality. Virginia insists that her body is her own; she does whatever she wants with it, and feels no shame. Her freewheeling behavior (by 1950s standards anyway) might cause her trouble, but Virginia’s refusal to compromise — to choose between sex and career — is her greatest strength.
Presumably all these actors — Lizzy Caplan, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Claire Danes, Kerry Washington, Jennifer Lawrence — know how to be good soldiers. After all, they act as extensions of the franchises in which they star. Although it’s probably a lot more fun than having the CIA lock you up in a mental institution, an actor who plays the same character for years on end knows a little something about devoting herself to a collective enterprise.
But devotion to a higher power is not why these characters continue to hold our attention and admiration. The truth is, we love it when Carrie goes rogue and disobeys the CIA’s commands, just as we love it when Olivia and Fitz say “fuck it” and hook up in a White House utility closet. It might be self-destructive behavior, but on these shows, it’s the closest thing to human behavior, deriving from whim rather than duty. It’s the thrill of being a free agent. At the heart of this impulse is these characters’ insistence that no one is going to tell them what to do, no matter how big and scary the institution — that they are people first and citizens second.