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How 'Scandal' Changed TV


Olivia Pope is about to handle her final crisis. She's the fictional political fixer at ABC drama "Scandal," which airs its final episode tonight. Here's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: From its very first scene, "Scandal's" formula was set - aggressively smart people doing consequential things while talking very fast like this moment from the show's 2012 pilot, when aspiring lawyer Quinn Perkins finds out that the blind date she thought she was on with another young lawyer is actually something else.


KATIE LOWES: (As Quinn Perkins) Dirty martini. What do you mean this is a job interview?

COLUMBUS SHORT: (As Harrison Wright) This is a job interview?

LOWES: (As Quinn Perkins) You're a baby lawyer. You're 12 years old.

SHORT: (As Harrison Wright) I'm 28 years old.

LOWES: (As Quinn Perkins) Why aren't we sitting in an office in a law firm?

SHORT: (As Harrison Wright) 'Cause that's not how we do job interviews.

LOWES: (As Quinn Perkins) I didn't apply for a job with you.

SHORT: (As Harrison Wright) You did.

LOWES: (As Quinn Perkins) I didn't.

SHORT: (As Harrison Wright) You did.

LOWES: (As Quinn Perkins) OK. You know what? This has been whatever, but I don't do blind dates.

SHORT: (As Harrison Wright) Ask me who I work for.

LOWES: (As Quinn Perkins) What?

SHORT: (As Harrison Wright) You really want to ask me who I work for.

LOWES: (As Quinn Perkins) Fine. Who do you work for?

SHORT: (As Harrison Wright) Olivia Pope.

DEGGANS: Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, was the first black woman to lead a broadcast TV drama series in nearly 40 years. "Scandal" creator Shonda Rhimes based her story on another trailblazer, real-life crisis manager Judy Smith, a black woman who served in George H.W. Bush's White House. But the fictional version runs pretty much all of Washington, D.C., as Olivia explained this season to President Mellie Grant.


KERRY WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) We have it all. But the men outside these oval walls? They want to take it all away from us because they are terrified. Because they are outraged because they have come to the realization that all those centuries of misogyny and privilege and status quo are finally over. That is why you never listen to a man over me.

DEGGANS: That moment, where two women are poised to serve as leaders of America, felt like a bit of wish fulfillment for a show that often featured women, gay people and people of color in positions of power. It's tough to remember what TV was like six years ago before "Scandal" because so many more shows these days star women of color. But from Viola Davis on ABC's "How To Get Away With Murder" to Taraji P. Henson on Fox's "Empire," black women now lead some of TV's highest-profile series. In part, that's because Rhimes cracked open the door for more inclusion through "Scandal."

ABC even reserved Thursdays for three shows executive produced by Rhimes, "Grey's Anatomy," "How To Get Away With Murder" and "Scandal." Rhimes referenced that legacy in a crossover episode featuring Davis as super lawyer Annalise Keating, who reached out to Olivia Pope for help. But they wound up fighting while sitting in a hair salon.


WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) I never judged you.

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Annalise Keating) Oh, you judged me immediately, just like a white man in a board room looking down on me because my hips are too wide and my hue too dark.

WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) Oh, so we're going there? Wow.

DAVIS: (As Annalise Keating) You think we soul sisters just 'cause you rented out a hair salon for a few hours on the black side of town? Please.

WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) You know your skin tone and measurements aren't the reason people don't like you. Annalise Keating, you are a bully who insults people and then wonders why they won't help you. But hey, you're just trying to keep it real.

DEGGANS: They eventually worked it all out, but there's only so many world-shaking crises a fast-talking fixer can solve before things feel a little stale. And Donald Trump's Washington is so unpredictable these days, "Scandal's" plots can look like pale imitations. Rhimes herself admitted as much to "Good Morning America" anchor Lara Spencer in 2016.


SHONDA RHIMES: Because we had all kinds of crazy things planned. And I keep walking into the room and going, well, we can't do that.

LARA SPENCER: Because it's real.

RHIMES: Because it's real. And people will think we're stealing from actual life. And now life has surpassed anything that we could come up with.

DEGGANS: ABC hasn't given critics tonight's finale in advance, so I can only hope it ends with Olivia saving Mellie's presidency and yet somehow still running the world. But "Scandal's" legacy is already set, reflected in the wider palette of characters featured in TV shows across the industry. I'm Eric Deggans.


Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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