7:00pm PT by Lesley Goldberg
Inside 'Scandal's' Killer Election Twist: It's "Not a Political Commentary"
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Scandal's season six premiere, "Survival of the Fittest."]
ABC's Scandal launched its sixth season Thursday with an unforgettable episode in which the Shonda Rhimes drama's president-elect was assassinated as he was about to deliver his acceptance speech. What's more, the episode takes on additional significance given that it was originally scheduled to air the night before Donald Trump's inauguration.
The episode drew an uncanny similarity to the country's recent presidential election that saw Republican Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, and the subsequent focus on the electoral college after the latter won the popular vote. But as producers and stars of the Washington, D.C.-set political soap stress, the season was largely written well before the November election and a Trump victory. (For what it's worth, season five featured a very Trump-like candidate in Hollis Doyle.)
Scandal's premiere — delayed a week after Trump's inauguration — ultimately saw its Democratic candidate Frankie Vargas (Ricardo Chavira) defeat Republican first lady Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) in a race that, like the recent election, hinged on one county. Ultimately, Vargas was shot multiple times, with the third bullet ripping a hole in the side of his face, going through his skull and into his brain.
It triggers a question about the chain of command and puts the pressure on incumbent President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) to pick between his ex-wife or his former chief of staff-turned-Vargas' VP pick Cyrus (Jeff Perry). In true Scandal fashion, Olivia (Kerry Washington) suspects power-hungry Cyrus was behind Vargas' assassination. While Fitz backs Cyrus over Mellie, the true president will be determined by the results of the electoral college vote in a striking similarity to recent political events that confirmed a Trump victory.
Rhimes and stars Washington and Goldwyn told reporters this month at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour that the first few episodes of season six were written and filmed months before a Trump victory, with co-star Young stressing that Scandal's world is "complete fiction."
"[The parallels] are crazy and a little frightening," Washington told The Hollywood Reporter at the Golden Globes of the episode that was filmed before her maternity leave at the end of September. "I emailed Shonda immediately [after the election] and a lot of us were concerned with what happens in the premiere and not having people think that that's something that we want to happen, obviously."
Washington and Goldwyn stressed that Scandal has always featured timely subjects — don't forget that the series is inspired by the life of D.C. fixer Judy Smith and started with a heightened version of the Monica Lewinsky scandal — and has featured timely episodes focusing around Planned Parenthood as well as characters similar to Edward Snowden a year before he made headlines.
"Scandal is its own universe; it's an alternate universe and is not a political commentary; it provides a cathartic counterpoint for people," Goldwyn told THR at TCA. "That's what I love about Scandal: Shonda is not interested in making a commentary in the same way she deals with diversity; she chooses to tell stories about the way the world is. So there's no polemic going on; it's not like we foresee this happening and so it does. We could never have predicted the results of this election — or how it played out with the focus on the electoral college."
For their part, Rhimes, Washington and Goldwyn all supported Clinton — contributing work including a video supporting the former first lady.
"It's very surreal when you're on a TV show that is about the craziest things that could happen in politics and then those things happen in real life," she said. "In Scandal fashion, I didn't see it coming at all. It didn't feel dangerous to me because we've had attempted assassinations to Fitz before. It didn't strike me as anything crazy at the time. It's crazy in the Scandal way where you expect the crazy because that's who we are."
As for the network's decision to delay Scandal's return a week — until after Trump's inauguration instead of the night prior — ABC Entertainment Group president Channing Dungey told THR that she is proud of the episode and relieved to have moved it.
"We talked about the episode back in November. The truth of it is, we do feel that it is a fictional show about fictional characters; this fictional narrative also builds very much on season five," she said. "I do think that in talking about the show and recognizing that it's fiction, we in November felt like, 'You know, this is fine; it's a story, a TV show.' When you look now at where the mood of the country is, I'm not unhappy about the fact that because ABC News had a special they wanted to run that we were able to push everything by a week. But I stand by the story and think it's a fantastic episode. I think that in this current climate, I think it's better that we're airing it a week later."
In terms of how much Scandal will focus on the electoral college moving forward, Goldwyn stressed that the season will follow different characters in filling in how they arrived at Election Night as the show featured a six-month gap between where season five ended and when the new cycle started.
"The electoral college is an ongoing issue but as things develop, each episode focuses on one character's perspective," he said. "It doesn't get that focused on the machinery of the politics. It's more about how we got here; it focuses more on the characters than the real-world similarities."
What did you think of Scandal's season six premiere? Sound off in the comments section, below. Scandal airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.