How ‘Scandal’ Beat ‘Homeland’ At Its Own Game


Credit: IMDb

I’m writing about Homeland for New York Magazine’s Vulture this season, and as I’ve been working through last night’s episode, the frustrating, game-changing “Game On,” I’ve found myself returning again and again to Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal as a point of comparison. On the surface, the two shows have little in common other than their setting in Washington. Homeland is a prestige drama, theoretically devoted to the facts–even when the facts are hard to believe–and clear about its intention to probe big issues in the War on Terror. Scandal is a nighttime soap that grew out of a procedural that’s far more invested in mood and tone than the actual details of presidential politics, and that has used a steamy, adulterous affair as an ongoing Trojan Boink to advance the debate about everything from the government’s use of torture to voter fraud.

But somehow, we’ve come to a place where Scandal now both more fun to watch than Homeland, and in its own fevered way, engaged with the issues with just as much integrity as Homeland. How did this come to pass?

First, while both Scandal and Homeland have central romances that eat up huge swaths of their action, Scandal knows its is bunk. When Homeland started, Sgt. Nicholas Brody was Carrie Mathison’s target, rather than her lover. But after she honeytrapped him, Carrie and Brody fell for each other, and Homeland fell for the idea of the two of them as wounded soulmates. It’s true that they’d both been hugely damaged by the War on Terror, Carrie driving herself mad with guilt over not having detected and disrupted the September 11 attacks, Brody damaged first by captivity and torture, and second by the death of Issa in a drone strike. But rather than letting the romance flare and reach a logical conclusion, Homeland kept throwing the pair together, even after Brody ran for Congress, killed the Vice President, and fled to Canada. The romance ate the show, at the expense of Homeland‘s ability to see the characters clearly.

By contrast, in Scandal, the sizzling affair between Olivia and Fitz is precisely the way the show reveals their true characters. Shonda Rhimes has said that she’s uncomfortable when people root for the pair, which makes sense, given that she’s written their romance as the means by which Fitz expresses his selfishness and lack of regard for his own presidency, and the way in which Olivia toys with a fantasy that would mean sacrificing her potential as an independent operator, and with generating scandals instead of shutting them down. In other words, on Scandal, the romance, character development, and themes are aligned. On Homeland, they’re torn in different directions.

And one of the reasons that’s the case is that Scandal‘s alignment is based in clearer convictions. The show is clear-eyed about institutions and the people who run them, while Homeland keeps forgiving them. Handsome heir to a political dynasty? Rose-gardening gay chief of staff? Perfectly-coiffed First Lady? Sweet old Supreme Court Justice? Brilliant political strategist? Honorable District Attorney? All of them are capable of stealing an election, killing an old lady, lying to the press, or selling out to save themselves from a life of substitute teaching. Scandal is full of rogues, and clear about the damage they do to each other and the country, and makes us enjoy it anyway.

Homeland, by contrast, keeps subverting its institutional critiques to personal relationships. Have characters who invited massive blowback against the United States with their actions? Kill them in a bombing so you don’t have to deal with their legacy, and the factors that have allowed them to remain in power. Got a sneaky operative like Dar Adal, who appears to be turning the barely-surviving CIA to sinister ends? Don’t worry, he’s easily undermined and deceived. Does it seem like Saul’s done terrible things to protect the agency, and to cement his directorship in uncertain times? You don’t have to bet upset or ask questions about the corrupting influence of power, because it’s all a ploy he and Carrie cooked up long ago. Homeland is undoubtedly a grimmer show than Scandal, Carrie’s depressive tequila runs in place of Olivia’s wine, her unwashed hair up against Mellie’s extravagantly bouyant locks. But these days, Scandal seems more willing to lay down the real talk than Homeland does.

Finally, Scandal‘s world has grown as Homeland‘s has shrunk. Homeland has never had very many deeply developed characters to start with, and it shrunk the cast last year when David died in the CIA bombing and Brody’s departure for his Magical Misery Tour limited his plausible availability for theme development and storylines. But this season, the show hasn’t exactly expanded outwards. We’ve got all of one Real Talk scene between Saul and Mira, a very limited discussion of Jessica Brody’s efforts to rejoin the workforce, which would have been an excellent way to explore the underdiscussed subject of how the War on Terror affects participants’ families, another doomed romance for Dana, and the odd serenity of poor, ignored Chris Brody. Quinn remains Jesse Pinkman’s partner in Depression Over Violence Done To Children. Dar Adal is still a cipher. We haven’t even gotten more of the delightfully scence-chomping Andrew Lockhart yet, to my infinite sorrow. That places heavy, heavy weight on Carrie and Saul in particular, and limits the vectors through which Homeland can explore its themes, or the way various aspects of Washington respond to a major event like the CIA bombing.

Scandal has a lot more episodes to develop its characters in, but even if it had half the number, it would still make Homeland‘s aperture look awfully narrow. And the way it’s tied those characters to each other and to the show’s larger, paranoiac themes makes a terrific case for the mechanical pragmatism of network television at a time when shows from Louie to Enlightened to Girls are making a name for themselves with digressive, one-off episodes. Homeland could use a figure like Olivia Pope’s father to shake up the equation, and it could give Virgil a backstory to match Abby’s (I couldn’t bear to see poor Virgil go through as much trauma as Huck). One of the benefits of being on premium cable is supposed to be more minutes per episode. Homeland could stand to use those precious moments to make its world a little bit bigger, and its ideas a little broader.