LOS ANGELES – Visitors to Hollywood’s version of the White House can pay their respects to a chunky bust of the first president and a portrait of the general on horseback. But on the set at Sunset Gower Studios, the Washington with the most clout is named Kerry, even as her groundbreaking term nears its end.
“Welcome to the Oval!” the Emmy-nominated actress said last week before hugging her co-stars on the ABC series “Scandal,” which returns Thursday for the first of its final 11 episodes. “I think we’re all looking for our own version of Cirque du Soleil to go on the road. We might form a music group. Maybe an ice show. Whatever we have to do to stay by each other’s side.”
Whatever Washington and her team decide to offer as a follow-up, it’ll be hard to match the impact they’ve had on shattering stereotypes and putting social media at the center of the TV conversation.
When Washington first appeared as political fixer Olivia Pope in April 2012, she was the first black actress to lead a network drama since Teresa Graves in 1974’s “Get Christy Love.”
But the show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, didn’t stop there. Over seven seasons, viewers have been introduced to a gay White House chief of staff, a female president and a pregnant crisis-management boss — all in such a casual way that diversity in the nation’s capital seemed as commonplace as a Beltway traffic jam.
Jeff Perry, who plays political insider Cyrus Beene, didn’t learn that his character was living with a man until the fifth episode, a revelation that initially threw him.
“I said, ‘Shonda, how can you spring this on me?’ But I thought about it and to that point nothing she had written really made that a problem,” said Perry. “She does that meticulously and skillfully all the time.”
Rhimes, who also made groundbreaking casting decisions for her series “Grey’s Anatomy” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” downplays her approach.
“It may be a difficult thing for others to do, maybe because they don’t experience the world as a person of color,” she said. “But it’s not that difficult for me, and it’s not a thing I set out to do.
“I look around the world and I see lots of different people. I cast the world as I see it. I don’t think that’s a special thing. I think that’s the normal thing to do. I think what other people do is abnormal.”
Still, the decision to make former First Lady Mellie Grant the president last year resonated with viewers as well as the actress who plays her, Bellamy Young — especially after Hillary Clinton failed to get elected in real life.
“I know she’s a fictional character, but sometimes I sit in this room and I’m so happy for her,” said Young, leaning against her Oval Office desk. “This show has largely been about exploring female power and the idea of women running the world. That’s true joy.”
In fact, in the “Scandal” world, women get more latitude than the other gender. Tony Goldwyn, who plays former President Fitzgerald Grant III — Pope’s on-again, off-again lover — said fans used to tease him for stepping out on his wife.
“They’d say, ‘Fitz is such a slut,’ but actually I’ve had less sex than Olivia Pope with a lot fewer people,” he said. “That may have been hard for a lot of people to deal with, but Olivia did whatever she wanted to with whatever man she wanted to be with, just like a lot of men on TV would do. It’s not something Shonda ever put a big neon sign around, but I think she really has fun flipping gender roles.”
Proving social media’s power
If Goldwyn was enthusiastic about messing with viewers’ expectations, he was less so about Rhimes’ insistence that her actors employ social media as a tool for promoting the show.
Goldwyn said he thought that any communication expressed in 149 characters or less signaled the end of civilization. But after getting feedback from fans during live Twitter sessions as episodes aired, he changed his mind.
“You could feel this grass-roots movement from the very first time,” he said. “It was more like working in theater where you feel your audience. You could literally have conversations with people in Ohio or Brazil or Nairobi. That grew and grew and grew exponentially every week.”
By season three, Nielsen had pronounced “Scandal” as the TV show with the most loyal followers and Washington’s Facebook account had leaped 466 percent. The series finished its fourth season as No. 8 in the ratings.
Interest has eroded since its 2014 peak, but actor Scott Foley said the twists and turns remain sharp, right up to revelations in the sixth-season cliffhanger that suggested Pope was even darker than die-hard “gladiators” could have predicted.
“I was impressed by the quality of writing in the sixth or seventh season of ‘Grey’s,’ because usually something slips that deep into a show’s run,” said Foley, who guest-starred on several episodes of that long-running Rhimes series before taking on the role of NSA Director Jake Ballard, another of Pope’s lovers. “Shonda’s done the same thing with ‘Scandal.’ Her empire has obviously grown and she’s become a celebrity in her own right, but she still makes sure the stories that are being told are not just interesting, but also inclusive, thoughtful and provocative.”
Some viewers may have lost interest because of the real-life political climate. ABC President Channing Dungey believes her network had difficulty launching “The Mayor” last fall because of the sitcom’s subject matter. The series was pulled after nine episodes.
“I do feel the show arrived on the scene at a time when people were feeling a little fatigued about anything that had to do with politics,” she said.
But for the star of “Scandal,” the Trump administration may help the final episodes of her series strike a deeper chord.
“When we started the show, our storytelling culture was really based on shock and going outside the realm of reality,” said Washington. “But these days, there is a lot of poignancy to these final episodes.
“Am I feeling delicate about the material because of what’s happening in Washington? Because it’s the last year? Because I love these people so much? It’s hard to tease out. All I know is that we can’t compete with reality.”