ABC’s has definitely hit a goldmine with its smash success Scandal, Shonda Rhimes’ drama about a very married president of the United States and his mistress. ABC seems to be running with a theme here, with the debut of its new show “Mistresses” coming this summer. For some, this begs the question: are mistresses having the best season ever? Are shows like these glorifying the side chick?
“Scandal”’s success is undeniable. Throughout the season, it routinely crushed its competitors in viewership (save for CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory”/”Two and a Half Men” hour), and it has absolutely captivated Twitter audiences. It has been estimated that each new episode of “Scandal” had viewers sending out 2,000 tweets per minute. The season finale won 571,353 tweets, and the entire season saw 4.3 million. There is unquestionable appeal — but what is it? Why do people love “Scandal”? How can anyone champion a show that revolves around someone immoral enough to sleep with a married man?
If, in considering this show, all you focus on is the extra-marital relationship, then of course it will seem that that is all the appeal. But there’s so much more at work. For starters, it’s safe to say that people like “Scandal” because, as NPR’s new Codeswitch blog points out, people really like Kerry Washington. She’s a dynamo in her role as the fast-talking, impossibly intuitive problem solver with killer peacoat game and a furious gait. Everyone loves a no-nonsense character, and Olivia is definitely having none of your mess. …Unless, of course, that mess is coming from her married boyfriend. We’ll talk about that more later.
It’s rare to see a hit show with a powerful, headstrong, intelligent black woman as its central character who is not also dripping with some sort of historical stereotype, and that, too, makes it easy to tune in and find yourself rooting for someone your grandmother would label a homewrecker. The show is multicultural without being about race, which is also refreshing, and it’s a completely ridiculous-over-the-top show that is easy to get lost in. These factors, I’d argue, weigh heavier than wanting to see a man divorce his wife to marry his mistress.
Back to that whole married boyfriend thing, though — it would be crazy not to think that the troubled relationship between Olivia and President Fitz isn’t a reason that people get enrapt in the show, because it totally is. But not, necessarily because people are universally rooting for their relationship. Some are, sure, but it’s a really screwed up relationship. Fitz is controlling, borderline abusive and manipulative; Olivia is delusional and on a fast track to star on an episode of “Iyanla Fix My Life.” Her affair is not a glamorous one. She is not a kept woman, continuously adored, showered with gifts, and eventually rewarded for her patience with the man of her dreams. There is nothing glorious about her affair. If anything, it’s a cautionary tale against being the side chick. This show is messy, honey, and people love a train wreck.
“Life is not a romance novel,” Cyrus growls to Olivia in the season finale. And that’s exactly it. This story is compelling because it is uncomfortable and dramatic, not just because there’s a woman sleeping with a married man. Pointing to ABC’s upcoming show “Mistresses” as proof that mistresses are indeed being glorified is folly, too; with Scandal’s success, it’s no wonder that they’d try to keep the momentum going.
Shows about infidelity are nothing new; from your grandmother’s soap operas to “Desperate Housewives,” people have been cheating on primetime TV for decades. This is just the current flavor of the month. Watching shows like “Scandal” and “Mistresses” are not immoral; going out and cheating is what’s immoral. Television is an escape, a realm we enter to watch people do outlandish things that we would not or could not do. For one hour once a week, we walk on the wild side and do all the things our parents told us never to do — and it’s fun.