Ellen Gray: Building drama: 'Scandal' writer roots plot in real-world figures

In "Scandal," crisis-communication specialist Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is embroiled in an affair with the president (Tony Goldwyn).
In "Scandal," crisis-communication specialist Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is embroiled in an affair with the president (Tony Goldwyn).
Posted: February 28, 2013

* SCANDAL. 10 p.m. Thursdays, 6ABC.

SHONDA RHIMES thinks I might be taking the rigging of a national election a bit too seriously.

"Do I worry that people might turn against a fictional administration?" the creator of ABC's "Scandal" said teasingly after I asked her, during a press visit last month to the show's set at Hollywood's Sunset Gower Studios, if she was concerned that viewers might react badly to the revelation that the show's president hadn't been truly elected and that its crisis-manager heroine, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), had been in on the ultimate fix.

Rhimes had a point. Like many a viewer, I've stuck with "Scandal" through Olivia's on-and-off affair with President Fitzgerald "Fitz" Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and a host of more far-fetched subplots - why would I balk at the rigging of some voting machines in Ohio?

Still, "I know what you mean. I feel like we are working in a world in which our characters are already severely flawed, and they're doing some really flawed things. We talked a lot about this election-rigging," said Rhimes.

"I felt like it was a risky and bold move and we did it on purpose. It was purposeful to me that Olivia would be involved in this thing and we would do this thing. And our characters are not necessarily good people."

And yet Washington, too, was taken aback by a development that continues to have repercussions on the show.

"I actually finished [reading Episode 11, which aired Jan. 17] on my way to work and burst into tears," Washington said.

"The guy that I was in the van with . . . was like, 'Are you OK? What's wrong? What's wrong?' and I was like, 'I don't understand!' And I was so kind of traumatized because I knew that Olivia was a part of it but I didn't - I don't know. I kind of thought maybe she came in at the very end."

One person who doesn't seem to have any problem at all with the election-rigging on "Scandal" is Judy Smith, the crisis-communications expert whose clients have included Michael Vick and Monica Lewinsky and whose career as a former White House aide-turned-fixer inspired Rhimes to create "Scandal."

"There are stories all over the country on election-fixing," said Smith, who's also a co-executive producer on the show. "If you look at local markets across the country . . . it happens. It totally happens."

What didn't happen - at least to Smith, a lawyer who worked as a special assistant and deputy press secretary to President George H.W. Bush - was an affair with the big boss.

"I think what Shonda has done is a good job at really dramatizing crisis [management], and I think most of the people understand that I didn't sleep with the president. I have a bar license, so I don't encourage people to clean evidence scenes. I think people know that," said Smith, who continues to run her firm, Smith & Co., from Washington, D.C., reviewing "Scandal" scripts by email and answering writers' questions about how she'd handle whatever crises they've dreamed up.

Rhimes said that after she met Smith, "I knew I didn't want to tell the Judy Smith story. Mainly, because Judy has a life, and Judy has clients, and Judy has a job, and Judy certainly couldn't tell me the private, personal details of the people she represents, because she wouldn't be a fixer if she did."

"No, I wouldn't," Smith said.

"So I wanted to do something inspired by Judy, and, to that end, it was about creating a character who did what Judy did, but wasn't Judy. . . . It wasn't about casting someone who was like Judy. It was about casting someone who was like the character I had created in my head."

For Washington, who spent the nine months between the filming of the show's first, short season and its second playing the slave Broomhilda in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," the character in Rhimes' head is someone even more complicated than she'd imagined when she saw the script for the pilot.

"It's great that the writers have such courage, to live in the gray area, that there are no good guys or bad guys on our show. That everybody is flawed and human and trying to do the best that they can with their given circumstances," Washington said.

"Olivia in a lot of ways is kind of the answer to Broomhilda's prayers. I don't think Broomhilda could even imagine a world where a woman isn't property but owns her own property and owns her own business, a woman who isn't waiting to be rescued but actually makes a living rescuing other people," Washington said.

Fans of Rhimes' other shows - ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and its spin-off "Private Practice," which ended its run last month - probably wouldn't be surprised to find "Scandal" full of smart women (and men) making foolish choices.

Because although she's a self-described "political junkie," Rhimes is never far from the romance.

"There are very few real obstacles in relationships today, in television writing. Usually, it's neurosis," she said.

"And this" - a secret love affair between a married president and his former aide - "posed an actual obstacle that felt real and complex and dangerous and relevant."

And if she needs to rig an election to make that work? Well, that's show business.


Email: graye@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: EllenGray.tv

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