Can we talk about ‘Scandal’ and ‘Empire’?

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope

So listen, I don’t mean to be a wet blanket, I get that “Scandal” and “Empire” are the current pop culture party train and we’re meant to hop on and enjoy the ride.

And when it comes to “Scandal,” I did just that for quite a while. In fact I’m pretty sure people on Facebook and Twitter de-whatever-ed me for how often I was posting my love. In its early days the show combined a bold willingness to burn through plot, fantastic acting (Kerry Washington, you are a god and I shall sing your praises) and wonderful surprises hiding in my plain sight. You never knew where the show was going and it always rewarded your attention.


Then somewhere between seasons two and three its focus shifted to this top secret government murder club that seemingly everyone on the show was connected to. And at the same time, Washington’s Olivia went through her third or fourth break up/make up with her lover/adultery buddy/manbaby president Fitzgerald Grant, who may very well be the least competent president of the United States ever presented onscreen. His policy decisions are based almost entirely on what’s going on with him and Olivia at the time. It really is foreign policy through the lens of temper tantrums.

And I don’t know...I understand that actor Tony Goldwyn is apparently highly crushable, but when it comes to Olivia to me he always seems slightly threatening. Over and over he ignores her requests for him to back off, even physically imposing himself close to her at times as she’s saying no. He’s like the American cousin to Mr. Bates on “Downton Abbey”; I want to believe he’s a good person, but when he puts his hands around his lover’s neck as they kiss I find it very hard not to scream “run.”

But as “Scandal” has gone on—it’s now in its fifth season—the bigger problem has become, what is this incredibly capable and talented woman doing continuing to be the “other woman” to anyone, let alone this fundamentally childish man? And also, why does the First Lady let this serial adulterer stay? It’s not believable, and it’s also just kind of icky. In a way “Scandal” has become this awful male fantasy where the guy is handsome, has all the women and all the power. Olivia Pope deserves so much more.

Likewise, I keep reading that “Empire” is this groundbreaking new show, but the episodes I’ve seen seem to be drawing on all the old clichés about the African-American experience, and particularly the idea of the strong black women as dangerous, ridiculous and crazy. Don’t get me wrong; I see that Taraji P. Henson leaps off the screen in every scene that she’s in. She’s an incredibly talented actress.

But what is it about her Cookie or this story of an African-American family in the hip-hop business that’s supposed to be so fresh or unprecedented? Is it that it’s so popular, that we’ve reached a point where a black version of “Dynasty” or “Falcon Crest” can be an enormous widespread hit? I guess I could see that, though it sounds like the sort of thing white people would say to make themselves feel good, rather than an actual good thing.

But if I look to the actual stories being told and characters being drawn, I would say rather than revolutionary “Empire” is a huge step backward, a retrenching of unworthy ideas.

Am I taking this all too seriously? Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. I just can’t understand why we would continue to support a show about an incredibly talented woman letting herself be manipulated and demeaned by a horrible man, or another that seems to reinforce old stereotypes about race while a show like “Orange is the New Black” reveals how much richer and more nuanced our TV landscape can be.

I get it, they’re just a bit of entertainment. I guess I just can’t figure out why we would consider either of them worthwhile or entertaining.

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