Friday, June 07, 2013

Scandal: We have a dialogue problem

Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 makes for a great guilty pleasure because it's so simultaneously brilliant and terrible. It's not devoid of the brilliant storyelling instincts and the style of Sorkin, but it also epitomizes his greatest flaws as a dialogue writer and places them in the worst possible context (a comedy show): characters in varying walks of life who all have a minimum IQ of 150, sound the same, and like to discuss a minimum of three topics at once.

I've watched a handful of episodes of Scandal in non-sequential order and even without being familiar with the overarching story arc, I find it very engaging. It's got a great sense of its setting (the upper echelons of D.C. politicos), it has one of the strongest protagonists on TV in Kerry Washington's scandal fixer Olivia Pope, and it has a wonderful sense of pace and style.

But the dialgoue is another story. I haven't read many other reviews of the show (I wanted to be unbiased) and don't know if others have commented on this, but the dialogue is so annoyingly Sorkinesque. It seems as if the ghost of Sorkin circa 2006 has possessed the writer's room.

Here's a snippet of dialogue in the latest episode I just watched, "The Other Woman" (Season 2, Episode 2) between the White House chief of staff and his same-sex partner who also happens to be a major political reporter:
[Reporter wakes up WH chief of staff at 5 in the morning]
"Ethiopia's closing"
"Wait, what?"
"We waited too long, Ethiopia's closing. We can't get a baby too long unless we can pull some strings. Can you pull some strings?"
"Frankly I think we should go for a domestic adoption. There are a lot of babies in our own backyard who need homes"
"Its 5 a.m."
"I quit my job Cyrus. I'm an award-winning journalist and I ----"
"Oh, you won one award in college. It wasn't even Ivy League for God's sake---"
"I was on the short list for the pulitzer in 2009. That's like winning. I quit my job to take care of you and the fat, smushy baby you said we're gonna have. But there's no baby, where's the baby, Cy?
[Reporter gets out of bed and paces around]
"You've been dragging you're feet. That ends now. I want a baby. And Middlebury's just as good as the Ivy League, you highbrow, conservative snob. I can't believe I fell in love with a Republican"
"Being on the short list is not 'Like' winning. [shouting] Winning is like winning"
[Reporter storms out of room]

Thumbs up for creating drama and tension. Thumbs way down on being realistic. This is not how normal people interact. The reporter, in particular, sounds like he needs to be medicated for mania, especially considering he woke his lover up in the middle of the night to discuss this. When Bradley Cooper's character in Silver Linings Playbook woke his parents up in the middle of the night and started ranting, it was very clearly established that he was mentally ill.

In Scandal, characters are so intense that they come off as mentally ill, rude, or clueless. It's understandable that characters with the ambition to get positions of high power leading fast-paced lives will be Sorkenesque but nearly every character in Scandal's universe sounds and talks like this. When Olivia's associates Harrison and Abby are visiting the morgue, they have this conversation with an ubersnarky coroner working the night shift:
"Can I help you or do you two just like to watch"
"Abby Whelan and Harrison Wright. We're with Olivia Pope and Associates handling Pastor Drake's arrangements"
"You know we're backlogged but you can leave a number and I'll call you as soon as I get to him"
"Yeah, the thing is the family wants an open casket and ----"
"---- and unless the pastor is going topless in his coffin the incision will be well-hidden. I don't mean to brag but I'm something of an artist"

Are we supposed to believe this is how she speaks to everyone entering the morgue? For all she knows, Harrison and Abby are two ordinary people inquiring about funeral arrangements.  Her job description isn't entirely centered around customer service but she deals with people who are inquiring (and might be distraught) about people who have been violently murdered. Instead of using any degree of sensitivity, she talks to them worse than the rudest waitress you've ever had.

Abby (Darcy Whelan) is likely my favorite character on the show because she's so over-the-top with her snarkiness, that it has a certain theatricality to it. She reminds me of a sharper version of Aubrey Plaza on Parks and Recreation or Natasha Leggero on the short-lived Free Agents. When the gang walks into the room of a dead minister lying dead on top of his mistress who's handcuffed to the bed, Abby gleefully deadpans "We found him!" There's no reason Abby's character would possibly have to say this in that situation if she has any sense of professionalism, but it has a sort of wink to it.

Another thing wrong with the dialogue is excessive expositioning, wherein nearly everything the characters are saying is a blatant attempt to establish their character traits to the audience and make little sense in a natural conversation.

This happens in spades all over the episode: In a presidential pow-wow, there's an heated debate between the president and one of his aides and the aide counters by emphatically stating "Mr. President, I graduated from the naval academy, taught at the naval war-" before being cut off. This is a guy who's on screen for approximately 17 seconds (thanks Hulu!) and the screenwriter felt the need to use that time to establish his character in dialogue as if the uniform with dozens of medals on it didn't do the job.

We haven't even gotten to the next commercial break when Quinn -- Olivia's new associate and pet project -- is tracked down by Huck as she's running away to San Diego. When she sees Huck, Quinn proceeds to spill out the turmoil of her life story to him. As Huck is ONE OF THE WORLD'S BEST PERSONAL INVESTIGATORS AND KNEW ENOUGH ABOUT HER TO TRACK HER DOWN TO SAN DIEGO, this makes no sense. We need a better reason to justify this conversation.

Two minutes later, the head of the CIA is on screen for twenty seconds and one of his three lines is "I'm the Director of the CIA!" Sheesh! If organically establishing characters is too difficult for this show, maybe they should put large name tags on their chests?

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