Brow Beat

Why Is the President on Scandal So Dumb?

Tony Goldwyn.

Randy Holmes/ABC.

This post contains spoilers.  

I started watching ABC’s addictively trashy drama Scandal because of Twitter, which, according to this week’s Entertainment Weekly cover story, is no surprise: The show averages more than 200,000 tweets per episode. I can’t remember if it was Josh Malina (who plays Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rosen) or Lena Dunham (a self-professed “scandalhead”) who got me to start watching, but after a rainy winter weekend with the seven-episode first season, I was hooked.

I loved what everyone else loved: Kerry Washington’s strong yet vulnerable Olivia Pope (and her kick-ass wardrobe); the utter implausibility of almost every plot point (even when it has some tenuous basis in reality); and, of course, the steamy, forbidden romance between the president and Olivia, the woman he hired to get him elected. (Here’s the part where I mention that Bill Clinton’s a fan too.) As Shonda Rhimes says in the EW piece, “I feel like The West Wing brought us Washington as we’d all want it to be … And this show brings us Washington as we hope it would never be.” That means the show’s contrived drama doesn’t need to resemble real-world politics or be remotely believable. Unlike, say, Homeland, whose divergence from any semblance of plausibility in Season 2 drove me crazy, I love Scandal BECAUSE it’s implausible and insane. I don’t care about the president’s Batman-style assassination-attempt recoveries, or FLOTUS’s ability to get pregnant on demand. But I do care about character continuity within the show, especially if it’s a character trait essential to the show’s premise.

And when it comes to Tony Goldwyn’s President Fitz, I often can’t stop laughing. His chemistry with Washington is great; it’s one of the best parts of the show. But as a president, he’s a joke. The show comes close to admitting this on occasion, revealing, for instance, that he never would have been elected on his own, and that he can’t govern at all without his wily chief of staff.   The show’s premise relies on the election of the president via voter fraud in the form of rigged voter booths. As Season 1 unravels, we learn that almost everyone close to the president—his chief of staff, his wife, his donors, and, most heart-breaking for him, Olivia—all agreed that the only way to get the president elected  was to tamper with memory cards in voter machines in, wait for it, Defiance County, Ohio. Reporters find out, but for various reasons don’t report on it; David Rosen finds out, but for various reasons is prevented from exposing him. (Note: various reasons always means Olivia Pope is behind it, and Olivia Pope is awesome, always.)

And while the technical details of the voter fraud unravel carefully over the first season, this major plot point still doesn’t work for me, because I can’t imagine anyone feeling so compelled to commit a crime to get Fitz Grant elected president. Maybe if we had some reason to believe that Fitz is a capable, intelligent president with a coherent agenda, I’d be on board. But we have never seen that Fitz. The one we’ve seen has had two affairs, lots of daddy issues, and, by Season 2, a drinking problem serious enough that he rarely appears without a glass of scotch. Also he makes national security decisions out of spite. Since returning from a brief hiatus last month, the show has spent more time showing us Fitz on the job, which mainly consists of botching a hostage situation until Olivia surreptitiously solves everything. And while I understand that not every TV president can be Jed Bartlet, and that a show so focused on melodrama doesn’t necessarily have time to delve deeply into political side stories, the character beats still need to make sense.

I’d like to think that Olivia’s ability to solve everything is at the heart of the president’s incompetence. But I don’t see why he can’t be a smart, capable president who also needs a smart, capable woman to save him. Fitz’s idiocy sometimes has me wondering if I’m watching a satirical farce, like Veep. And the fact that my favorite Pawnee, Ind., news broadcaster, Perd Hapley, appears to moonlight in the Washington where Fitz is president doesn’t help.