Friday, March 7, 2014

Lessons from Television: Olivia Pope vs. Veronica Mars

Last month I decided that, with the new Veronica Mars film coming out, the time had come to re-watch all three seasons of the original show.

Tough work. I suffer for art, y'all.


The more I re-familiarized myself with the show, which is a treasure trove of clever writing and surprising guest stars (Jessica Chastain, Melissa Leo), the more I saw similarities between Veronica Mars and Scandal, specifically the two main characters.



Scandal has its own strengths. The characterizations can be sharp, the writing crisp, the plot fearless. 

Both women are fixers. When people find themselves in the midst of tragedy and scandal, Veronica and Olivia can find a clever way out. They both use unorthodox means of questionable legality. They have friends and associates who are fiercely loyal, while their love lives are a mess.

Both shows struggled during the third season. In Veronica Mars, the tertiary characters wobbled and behaved erratically (never mind the frequent, giant plot-holes, such as Vinnie Van Lowe somehow being an eligible candidate for Sheriff, despite never having been a policeman), and yet Veronica remained strong.


We knew what she wanted, who she cared about, how she was damaged, and in Season 3 we learn how this negatively affected her life and relationships. In shows where you have to suspend a healthy amount of disbelief to buy into a teen-aged detective, the realism helped to ground the character.

Until now, watching Scandal has been like watching a top that's been spinning crazily and yet remained upright - somehow, despite the soapy twists and turns it managed to maintain its balance.

And then Season 3. The top is pinging and bouncing, and while it hasn't crashed yet, there's the feeling that it's inevitable.


For starters, there are a lot of tertiary characters that the writers want us to emotionally engage with. And that can be fine. But if you're going to build out a team of strong characters, you have to make sure that your central character is still the most compelling.

The telling moment for me was in the most recent episode, when Olivia yells at Fitz that she has her own hopes and dreams.


I sat there and thought, "Really? Hopes and dreams? Do share, because this is the first we're hearing about it."

And three seasons in, that's an issue. We should know what motivates her, and we're pretty sure that the Truth, Justice, and the American Way ship has sailed, because Olivia Pope is nobody's girl scout.

Much of her character in the first two seasons centered around her past and present affairs with the president. And yet, for the woman that we're told she is, there should be thoughts and motivations beyond her (admittedly concerning) personal life.

Contrast this with Veronica Mars. We knew her long-term goals, to finish college and make a career of investigation. For a 16-18 year-old, it works. In the shorter term, she wants to solve her best friend's murder, the double-mystery of her drugging and subsequent rape, and find her mother.

All of these are emotionally loaded, and we care deeply about each outcome. We watch her be alternately stoic and overwhelmed as she sifts through each issue. 

But all we know about Olivia Pope right now is that she wants Fitz to be reelected, and she likes the idea of living a "normal life" with Fitz in a "cabin" in Vermont. 

Yet when it comes to Fitz, we don't have any compelling reasons why he should be president (he admits that his greatest talent does not lie in foreign policy, cough), or why the two of them should be together. I get that Olivia is supposed to be mysterious and enigmatic. But after three seasons - we need to know stuff. It's important. We have to be able to get behind her goals, want to root for her success. 

And if not? That is a major, major structural issue. 

Shonda Rhimes is great at launching shows that are compulsively watchable, but the sustainability is an issue. Sure, Grey's Anatomy has been on for nearly ten years, but it began to jump back and forth over the shark in season 4; I don't know what's been going on and I'm okay with that. I'll watch previews in passing and simply be pleased if certain characters have managed to stay alive (when the death rate rivals Vampire Diaires, that's saying something). 

I'm excited to see how the transition from TV to film goes for Veronica Mars. And who knows - Scandal may be able to course correct. 



But until then, it's a strong lesson in character building. Even with established characters, sometimes it's important to step back and refocus on your character's goals and motivations.

Short term and long term, they inform the character's actions and keep your protagonist from becoming passive or unknowable.


Which strong characters have stuck with you? How do you think the serial-nature to television writing affects characterizations? Share your thoughts below!

1 comment:

  1. I agree. You do get to see what drives Veronica, what her character is about. But it is so unclear with Olivia. And Fitz is a terrible president

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