ABC's "Scandal" revolves around a beautiful, law-breaking Washington power-fixer with killer instincts and a matching wardrobe. She's madly in love with the very flawed president of the United States, who, among other things, recently murdered a Supreme Court justice. And they're the good guys.
This is the show that Twitter built.
Premiering midseason last year to tepid reviews (including mine) and low ratings, "Scandal," ABC's drama about crisis manager Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and her love affair with President Fitzgerald "Fitz" Grant (Tony Goldwyn), now approaches its second season finale as a bona fide hit — the show's many and vocal fans call themselves "gladiators" because that is what Olivia calls her team. Some of this success springs from our eternal fascination with the dark side of D.C. and the simple delight many feel about a fast-paced drama starring a strong black female character.
But the essential ingredient is Shonda Rhimes. The creator of three successful shows, Rhimes has a sorcerer's ability to combine suspense with sentiment, soap with cynicism.
More important, the woman can work social media.
She regularly sends her close to 350,000 followers mash-notes of fan appreciation ("Gladiators: Scandal would not have the opportunity to be on magazine covers without all of you watching. Thank you for making it happen!"), personal professional insight ("Here comes my favorite Olivia Pope line I have ever written ever. #youwantmeearnme"), and perhaps more important, a feeling of direct "I'm Watching With You" connection — "West Coast Gladiators: GET OFF TWITTER NOW! #spoilers #752."
Many of the "Scandal" cast have followed Rhimes' prolific example; it is not uncommon for one or several to tweet photos of them on set, tweeting.
The audience has responded in kind. Gladiators reject the DVR experience to watch "Scandal" in real time, creating an enormous digital version of college friends arranging their schedules around a beloved daytime drama. For its returning episode in March, "Scandal" drew 119,000 tweets, beating longtime Twitter favorite "American Idol" by almost 80,000. This season's penultimate episode drew almost 9 million viewers and a series high in the coveted 18-49 demographic; needless to say, Twitter went wild.
The show is a new-media phenomenon, a flag bearer for Direct Courtship TV. Without Twitter to boost its profile and then its ratings, "Scandal" probably would have been canceled. Instead, it's held up as an example of social media prowess by networks and branding experts of every stripe, and its success further stokes the belief that somehow Twitter can save us all.
Anyone producing "original content" (including this story) has their hopes pinned on social media. "Follow me on Twitter" has become a standard sign-off on business cards and correspondence, and an industry of social media consultants now offer advice to institutions that once shuddered at the word "publicity."
Theaters, where cellphone tones have been known to spark onstage meltdowns, now have designated "tweet seats" to encourage live commentary during performances. Steven Soderbergh, after famously exiting film, is currently writing a novel with pictures, a tweet at a time. Stephen Colbert recently taught Bill Clinton to tweet, and then tweeted about the experience.
"Scandal" proves that Twitter can work. It also illuminates its price. Having drawn the beast's attention, you must now continually feed it. And it's a picky eater.
Social media is not built for subtlety — it's difficult to do nuance in 140 characters. The new, the outrageous, the quotable, the one-sentence insight, the exultant zinger, the sweeping statement — that is where the demographic lives.
Before "Scandal," Rhimes was behind the more spiritual show "Off the Map," which also drew disappointing reviews and poor early numbers. The show runner did her best, but could raise no fan base. The tagline for the show's Twitter account may offer one explanation: "The creators of Grey's Anatomy bring you an uplifting medical drama that explores how far you have to go to truly heal."
No one goes on Twitter — or nighttime TV for that matter — to "truly heal."
With its high drama, built-in political commentary and reliance on memorable declarative dialogue ("I am not a lawyer, I am a gladiator in a suit"), "Scandal" came out of the box Twitter-friendly. But even that wasn't quite enough. Originally constructed as a "crisis du jour" procedural, the series didn't achieve liftoff until fans became devoted to the Pope / Fitz love drama.
By the second season, the duo had become the soft, sticky center of every increasingly manic episode, undermining, to a certain extent, the image of Pope as independent and clearsighted, and ratcheting up the cynicism. Every episode is a cliffhanger, churning with amped-up reveals and hairpin turns that increasingly seem tailored more for commentary than continuity.
The plot has also grown increasingly dark. There was an assassination attempt, a waterboarding scene. A recent episode devoted to the back story of the much-beloved Huck (Guillermo Diaz) revealed that he had worked for a shadow wing of the CIA. Flashbacks of him torturing people were accompanied by an upbeat retro soundtrack. When, back in the present, Huck confessed to Olivia that he had done terrible things, she assured him: "We have all done terrible things."
Narratively and philosophically, "Scandal" is simply insane, and that insanity is precisely what makes it so tweetable.
And there it is, the snake in this garden of fan devotion and numbers success. For "Scandal" and, indeed, every product trying to navigate the vast yet splintered wilds of the digital universe, the big issue has become: How much effect should the medium have on the message?
With its episodic nature, television has always relied on shock and suspense to keep viewers coming back; now shows can thrive if they give good tweet.
In many ways, "Scandal" is a test case for the Big Four — CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox. It operates in a separate universe than slow-grow dramas like AMC's "Mad Men," Sundance Channel's "Top of the Lake," or even PBS' "Downton Abbey," which has managed to accrue a sizable fan base without asking Maggie Smith to wield a smartphone on set. ("Attention Proletariat! We will be live-tweeting in the drawing room.")
But there is no denying that network dramas have to do something, and perhaps creating a collective, multimedia experience where television shows once existed alone is it. Rhimes possesses a near superhuman ability to juggle many things, including solid writing and absurd scenarios. Watching how "Scandal" evolves as a television show is, in many ways, more tantalizing than the magical mechanics of Olivia's problem solving.
Honestly, it is hard to wait to see what happens next. I'll be live tweeting on that @marymacTV.
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