Sunday, March 29, 2015

TV: When a show runner is a show ruiner

"Your coverage isn't helpful."

That's what an ABC friend, an executive, told us two weeks ago.  We'd been again discussing how Shonda Rhimes was running off viewers with him and he'd insisted that all would be fine March 26th.  We'd predicted, at that time, that the Lena Dunham episode would take the show to a new low and he wisely hadn't disputed that.

However, he had insisted that the March 26th episode of Scandal would turn things around.

"It's a wedding," he pointed out, "and viewers love weddings."


That's true.

Weddings are usually a way to pump up the ratings.  Few get the kind of ratings that Rhoda received for its October 28, 1974 episode where Valerie Harper's character got married as over fifty-million viewers tuned in.  And when Laura (Genie Francis) and Luke (Tony Geary) married on General Hospital, 30 million viewers tuned in.

Those are the big records but weddings generally pump up the ratings for any series.

Which is why the ratings for last Thursday's Scandal are so telling.

Lena Dunham is an overpraised hack who's also unable to deliver viewers for HBO.  ABC execs were opposed to an episode revolving around Dunham because she's divisive.  That her heavily promoted guest starring episode on March 19th delivered the lowest rated episode of the season (to date) surprised no one.

It certainly didn't surprise us.

Nor did the ratings on Thursday.  Yes, they were almost .3 million higher than the Lena episode.

Even so, they were lower than the March 12th episode.

The wedding of Cyrus (Jeff Parry) and Michael (Matthew Del Negro) did not bring the viewers back.
Suddenly, whether we're helpful or not, we're being sought out by our ABC friends to explain what is going on?

What's going on is rather simple, Shonda has painted herself into a corner.

Will Olivia (Kerry Washington) and Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) get together or not was the question at the start of the series.

In an attempt to stall that, Shonda created a triangle by adding Jake (Scott Foley) to the mix.

Olivia and Fitz have already had sex (repeatedly).

This isn't Sam and Diane (Cheers) or Maddie and David (Moonlighting) where the audience wonders if the two will -- or even could -- get together.

Olivia and Fitz as a couple?  That's always been a known.

The audience has just waited for them to get together.

Until Jake came along.

And surprisingly, Jake won over a number of viewers.

Or maybe not surprisingly.

Thursday's episode featured lots of scenes with Cyrus and James.  This despite the fact that Dan Bucatinsky's character was killed off last season.

Shonda loves bringing certain people back for new episodes (Stephen Finch's Henry) or for flashbacks (James being only the most recent).

You know who hasn't come back?

Debra  Mooney.

Mooney played Supreme Court Justice Verna Thornton.

For those who've forgotten, cancer didn't kill her in the middle of season two, Fitz did.

With his bare hands.

That's part of the reason audiences accepted Jake.

That and Tony Goldwyn.

Tony's a good actor but his career, until Scandal, is most noted for his potrayals of scumbags.  Like in Ghost where he's the reason Patrick Swayze's killed and Swayze's ghost tries to protect Demi Moore from him.  Like in The Pelican Brief, where's he's part of a conspiracy to kill Supreme Court judges (so there was a pattern before he killed Verna).

Scott Foley didn't come with that baggage.

Viewers know him from Felicity, Scrubs and Cougar Town -- among other programs.

And Shonda was thrown.

Jake was never supposed to be more than a delaying device for Fitz and Olivia getting together.

Instead, he became an audience favorite.

Even his killing James didn't stop Olivia from running off to an island with him.

A serious problem for Shonda is that Foley and Washington have chemistry.

While Goldywn looks at Washington touchingly in scene after scene, Washington doesn't really project anything back and, with the introduction of Jake, Olivia began to seem rather a coldfish with regards to Fitz.

Shonda's answer, which will be on display this Thursday, is to screw with Jake -- to basically punish the audience for responding to the character, for embracing him.

Shonda likes to blame Kerry Washington when talking to ABC execs.

Scandal, she insists, was moving along great.  It had begun to be the biggest ratings winner on Thursday nights, everything was moving along swimmingly and then, because of Washington's pregnancy, they had to shoot around her and could only do 18 episodes in season three when they should have been doing a full 22 and using that season to consolidate the gains.

The embarrassing 'resolution' for the rogue spy agency storyline, she insisted, was the result of having to wrap up the season quickly due to that pregnancy.

"That pregnancy" is, in fact, how Shonda talks about it to ABC execs (but never to Kerry Washington).

Kerry Washington is a physical actress and when her fluidity of movement is confined for any reason, she has less to offer, that's true.

But any limitations her pregnancy (legally seen as "an act of God" in the legal contracts) imposed on season three do not explain how awful season four has been.

Characters have been introduced and then vanished.

Storylines have been started and forgotten.

Lately, Shonda's taken to ripping off Mistresses (Olivia's decision to ape Lena Dunham's character by going to bars and sleeping around was already done last summer by Yunjin Kim's Dr. Karen Kim on Mistresses).

And the season three pregnancy doesn't explain the victimization of Olivia that's been the hallmark of season four -- and a development viewers have repeatedly rejected.

Kerry's season three pregnancy has nothing to do with Olivia being kidnapped in season four, tormented, taunted with threats of rape, sold to the highest bidder, etc.

None of that has a damn thing to do with Kerry's pregnancy and none of it has a damn thing to do with why viewers love Olivia Pope.

The problem here is Shonda Rhimes.

And the solution?

If Shonda can't pull it together, ABC may need to consider what they did when another show runner was running off viewers -- replace the problem.

Revenge has managed to continue and thrive once ABC removed Mike Kelley.   The same might prove true for Scandal.

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