Share this article

print logo

Jeff Simon: What Charles Manson and Olivia Pope may have in common

"Satanic Mastermind."

That's what The Hollywood Reporter called Charles Manson's relationship to his cult announcing his death at 83 over the weekend.

"Satanic?" Self-styled perhaps, given the ghastliness of his "family's" crimes and the efficacy of his homicidal leadership. "Mastermind?" Hardly. He was the leader of a band of lost and parasitic druggies whom he could "master" because their own minds were so grievously lacking.

This is a man who successfully directed others to commit the most terrifying crimes of his time and place -- Los Angeles, 1969 -- because he thought that he could engineer a race war, after which he could finally be able to get his music respected.

By God, one way or another, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson would finally pay serious attention.

It is certainly as strange a crime story as America has ever seen. It first got people's attention because its seven victims included three people of Angeleno prominence:

-- Sharon Tate, who was never much of an actress but who was always soul-bendingly beautiful. She was not only married to director Roman Polanski, but about to have their first child when she was killed. Polanski, a Holocaust survivor whose own films were both dark and stark, proved to have a dark personal side of his own when he was forced to leave America to escape imprisonment for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl.

-- Jay Sebring, a "hairdresser to the stars" (Kirk Douglas etc.)

-- Abigail Folger, the heiress whose family marketed Folger's Coffee.

The nearby LaBianca family was also slaughtered and surrounded by bloody violent graffiti ("war," "death to pigs," "Helter Skelter").

One of the strangest and most underrated network TV shows of the past few years -- NBC's "Aquarius" -- had the gall to focus on Manson and his cult in order to invent a sickeningly plausible story about his hold over a closeted gay politician whose own daughter was one of Manson's "family." The show was created by John McNamara and it was an urban noir nightmare which resembled the novels of James Ellroy.

David Duchovny played the cop on the case, a sensitive buzz cut brute named John Hodiak who only pretended to be a thug.

Manson's tale was most famously told on TV when Vincent Bugliosi's book "Helter Skelter" was made and starred Steve Railsback as Manson. Tragically for him, Railsback was so good as Manson that he was never able to impress as anyone else as much again.

One of the most insightful things I've ever encountered from a television critic was the late book and TV critic John Leonard's observation that it was miraculous that prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and his staff were actually able to put together the insane "motive" for the "Tate-LaBianca Murders" -- that whole vision of a "Helter Skelter" America with a soundtrack from the Beatles' White Album. Imagine, said Leonard, how imaginative and creative Bugliosi and Co. had to be to realize what animated such hideous carnage.

Manson was nuts. Unfortunately, such problems have never stopped Americans from having enormous power over suitably empty fellow citizens. He was charismatic enough to lead a "family" of drug dependent followers who would do just about anything for the drugs, approval and camaraderie he would provide.

What Manson and his "Helter Skelter" slaughter provided America wasn't the vision or actions of a "mastermind" but a bone-chilling portrait of evil that so much mindlessness is capable of.

A lot of us suspected that '60s mindlessness could turn murderous. Manson and his family were, during the same period as the Woodstock Festival, the announcement of one place the "counter culture" would lead.


As long as we're on the subject of American nightmares, I can no longer stop myself from admitting how deeply turned off I am by the final season of Shonda Rhimes' "Scandal" on ABC. Its "Winter Finale" was broadcast last week and will return in January to air a handful-plus of final episodes before it's closing time for Olivia Pope and her "Gladiators."

What has been happening this season is that Kerry Washington, as genuine mastermind Olivia Pope, has gone over the course of the show from a slightly obsessed "fixer" having an affair with the president into an obsessed "power-player" capable of whatever evil seems like a good idea at the time.

When we left her last week, she and her NSA buddy (played by Scott Foley) engineered the assassinations of a foreign leader and his daughter on the tarmac of a Washington airport because as the head of the shadow group "command," she deemed it necessary for the international balance of power.

In the final episode, she was willing to let her pregnant friend be murdered by the previous "command" leader who happened to be her own father. She had more misgivings about it than Manson ever had about the fate of pregnant Sharon Tate, but not all that much.

Now you and I know that such blood-drenched offstage slaughter probably won't be allowed to stand when the show returns to the air in January. Katie Lowes will, no doubt, still be co-starring as Olivia's pal Quinn Perkins and we'll discover that the whole horror was just a ruse played on Olivia by her sick, power-twisted Daddy (played by Joe Morton with his usual clipped diction and high electric charge).

None of which changes the fact that if you're still with "Scandal," you've gone way past feminist fantasies of a woman "having it all" into a tale of a power-mad megalomaniac tyrant-in-waiting as crazy as any Mansonesque unwashed junkie and acid-head by the Pacific in 1969.

I'll keep on watching the show because I've come this far with it. I'm there until the bitter end. But my guess is that the show's idea of an ending will stop at very bitter matters indeed.

There are no comments - be the first to comment