'Scandal' and the Year of the Female TV Antihero

Television
by Sam Adams
December 27, 2013 9:56 AM
5 Comments
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In her leadoff piece for Slate's year-end "TV Club" -- six entries and counting; collect 'em all! -- Willa Paskin wonders if 2013 was the year that "quality" TV's predilection for white male antiheroes finally ate itself:

Walter White died and revealed the field behind him to be occupied by a bunch of wan copycats. Shows like Ray Donovan, Low Winter Sun, The Following, Hannibal, and House of Cards (yes, that's a fighting list) followed The Playboy Club, Boss, Magic City, and Boardwalk Empire in following the great Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, making for a weak-ass cohort of paint-by-numbers Prestige TV. A little ethical dilemma here, a little male hierarchy there; a little of Don Draper’s sex appeal here, a little of Tony Soprano’s menace there; add as much grisly violence as whatever network you’re on will allow and, voila, something dull and pretentious: a garbage monster looking for an award.

But as Paskin clarifies later on, "This year burst with series percolating on the themes of antihero TV -- violence, amorality, likeability, gender dynamics -- in new ways, from new angles, with new characters and different genres: shows like Scandal, American Horror Story, Orange Is the New Black, Top of the Lake, Rectify, Key & Peele."

In 2013, several critics asked whether we'd ever see a female antihero in the mode of Tony Soprano and Walter White, and some countered that dressing a character type patterned on hyperbolized masculinity in drag wouldn't change a thing. But the way I look at it, TV already has its first female antihero, and her name is Olivia Pope.

"But no," you will argue, where "you" is a voice I have conveniently invented. "Olivia's the good character on Scandal, the one trying to make her way in a world of liars and murderers. She wears the white hat!" To which I will respond: "1) Enough with the 'white hat' business, already. And 2) Really?"

The idea of Kerry Washington's Liv as Scandal's good guy is embedded in the show's mythology: It's why her blindly loyal associates call themselves gladiators in suits (well, that and the fact that they don't seem to know the difference between a gladiator and a knight). It's why we're meant to accept the fact that Liv employs a psychologically unstable, government-trained killing machine to do her dirty work, and is just shocked every time he breaks down and tortures or murders someone. I don't know that I've ever seen a show so cynical about the workings of government at the highest level. There's a very real sense in which Scandal is just 24 with a better wardrobe.

To her credit, Scandal showrunner Shonda Rhimes acknowledges that her characters are "monsters running around in human skin," but as with Breaking Bad and The SopranosScandal has what The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum calls "bad fans." They're the ones who side with Liv at every turn, resistant to the idea of taking a step back and surveying just how many horrible things she's complicit in, and how many she's instigated. In its third season, especially in its first and most recent episodes, the show has begun the explore the idea that Liv was born of darkness, that no matter how hard she tries to be good, her ruthless, amoral parents are somewhere inside her; even if she never knew who they really were, she's irrevocably tainted by their flaws. But Scandal also positions Liv as a perpetual victim; by now, you wonder if Washington keeps a mask of her open-mouthed surprised face on a shelf in her dressing room. We're invested in Liv's happiness, but not the question of whether she, or anyone in this world, deserves it. Bad fans notwithstanding, David Chase and Vince Gilligan went to great lengths to make it clear that viewers weren't meant to idolize their protagonists (although Gilligan arguably caved in the final stretch). For Scandal to be a truly great show, Rhimes needs to follow suit.

Television
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5 Comments

  • you forgot | December 31, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    Nancy Botwin from 'Weeds'
    Patty Hewes from 'Damages'
    Nicolette Grant from 'Big Love'
    Bree Van De Camp from 'Desperate Housewives'
    Julia McNamara from 'Nip/Tuck'

    perhaps Scandal has the first Female African American Anti-Hero?

  • Taz | December 29, 2013 11:36 PMReply

    At some point, all of the Scandal characters are bad, victims or somewhat good. It is not just Olivia. Second, her misfit team are loyal because Olivia saved them from being the worst type victim...one who is dead...and she enlists them to help others while dealing with her bankrupt life.

    But the question posed was whether there would be a female antihero like Tony Soprano or Walter White but I don't think it has been shown yet that Olivia Pope is that bad. Her mother, on the other hand............

    And I agree with Lee and Anonymous....if we are going to go with a broader definition of just being morally grey or unethical, then the ladies in Damages, Weeds, or even Homeland should be talked about as well.

  • Sam Adams | December 30, 2013 9:23 AM

    Not Harrison, though, who seems to be Olivia's most loyal subject. The only thing she saved him from -- at least until we see where his current subplot head -- is the terrifying prospect of "an bookkeeping degree," i.e. making in the high five/low six figures.

  • anonymous | December 29, 2013 9:23 PMReply

    I don't get why Patti and the Nancy from Weeds don't count. If the characters are morally grey or unethical than they are antiheros. They don't have to act just like Tony Soprano or Don Draper to be one. Some people give antihero a much too narrow definition.

  • Lee | December 27, 2013 11:34 PMReply

    What about Patti Hewes? Glenn Close created a female antihero over 5 years ago that more than matches any male antihero. Damages began well before Scandal.

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