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Politics in prime time is doing fine, thank you

Olivia Pope is back.

We’ll find out during Thursday’s episode of ABC’s “Scandal” if the Washington uber-fixer and “crisis manager” is up to the task of defusing the racial combustibility of a cop street shooting gone awry in 21st century style. But the show two weeks ago quickly ended its worst plot line of all time, the kidnapping of Olivia Pope and the subsequent auction of the president’s mistress – the ultimate in personal bargaining chips – to the highest nefarious bidder. We were told that the winners of the auction were the Chinese until it turned out that the real auction winner was an old pal in the D.C. “gladiator” business who owed her one.

Now that wasn’t bad, as resolutions to a truly god-awful plot line go. What that plot wrinkle was saying was that a lifetime of vicious manipulation and favors done for rotten, manipulative people eventually will save your life if your big toe gets caught in the ringer. (I have cleaned up the anatomy of that famous bit of mean-spirited bombast from Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, about Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham during Watergate.)

Olivia, though, is mighty angry at a lot of people. You would be, too. She will be even more so when she finds out how little people were willing to do to keep her alive when she was being regularly abused by drooling thugs. Her mega-villain father in exile (Joe Morton), for instance, heard the news of her abduction and went back to fishing on a lake well-hidden from the rest of the world.

Mostly, she’s angry at her sometime lover, the president of the United States, for being so lacking in backbone and so dependent on her that he, quite literally, started a needless war just to get her back. (Remember George W. Bush, at first, plaintively explaining to the world that the reason for his crusade against Saddam Hussein was, among other things, because “he tried to kill my Dad.”)

The moral of the last “Scandal” two weeks ago is that Olivia Pope is on her own.

Except in my house, where the morals for the show’s writers were: 1) Never again subject Olivia to sordid physical abuse. It subjects your show to asinine “24” rubbish where it doesn’t belong; and 2) Bring Joe Morton back. No one on the show – not even stars Kerry Washington or Jeff Perry – can deliver an ill-tempered 400-horsepower tirade at the rest of the cast the way he can.

That occasional tirade is, of course, the whole point of so many paranoid fantasies. Which is why “The Good Wife” – which returned Sunday night – is so much better than everything else on network television.

There are few, if any, loud tirades by anyone on “The Good Wife.” Such as they are, those would be signs of weakness. It was much more fun, on Sunday, to watch Chicago’s biggest and most promiscuously homicidal drug pusher keep his cool while talking to the despised “day trader” mother of the fat slob school kid who is bullying his son; and to watch Alicia Florrick, coldly bully – in legal negotiations – a sleazy “Law & Order-ish” TV show that came a bit too close to telling the real story of her richest homicidal client.

As we watched Julianna Margulies do that, we could see that her pulse probably remained at a stately 80 beats a minute.

Now that Netflix has dropped another 13-episode “House of Cards” binge-bomb on an America passionate for televised political paranoia, it’s time to start laying down some ground rules for doing it right. We’ve seen enough of this stuff to know what works and what’s ridiculous.

Sunday’s “Madame Secretary” was, in fact, a surprisingly good little fantasy about how the current Secretary of State and former CIA operative (Tea Leoni) used a dandy little bit of CIA tradecraft to humiliate a smarmy opponent who had, just a few days before, humiliated HER at an open Senate Committee meeting about the State Department budget.

The episode ended with – get this – the secretary of state and her professor husband quietly rejoicing that their bright, idealistic and headstrong oldest daughter had decided to go back to college after all. It was written by the show’s creator, Barbara Hall.

The whole thing was redolent of high-power-privilege-by-the-Potomac as seen from the inside (rather than outside). It was both effective in its family focus and a bit nauseating. It was, in any case, a long way from “Scandal’s” over-the-line shrieking melodrama of thugs kidnapping a Washington mega-operative and abusing her physically (a dire misreading of the show’s audience. However much we may love Shonda Rhimes’ hysterical plot surrealism, we didn’t want that. It cost too much dignity in the telling).

Olivia was, as she told the prez, not raped. She discovered, she told him, that there were worse things than rape: watching the man who is your life’s passion and your life’s chief work throw the integrity of his presidential administration away, for instance.

“Scandal” always has been great fun the nuttier and more far-fetched it got. But too much physical abuse is now being heaped on the real bodies of too many characters on the show. It’s a historic mistake TV often makes.

It made for a harrowing point when Edith Bunker was the victim of attempted rape on “All in the Family.” But it was exploitative and criminally indulgent when Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) was raped twice on “Law & Order SVU,” i.e., it seemed that its purpose was mostly to allow a star to chew some very chewable scenery.

In Rhimes-land, they learned a lesson elsewhere, on one of her other big shows. The very set-up of “How to Get Away With Murder” has allowed the best series actress on network TV – Viola Davis – to periodically strip off her makeup and act up a storm in every possible direction. It even allowed her to sulk tearfully in bed for a few days while her mother – played by majestic 81-year-old Cicely Tyson – came to her house and did a folksy Jane Pittman number all over her daughter’s self-indulgent misery.

When last we left “How to Get Away With Murder,” our lawyer heroine’s nastiest underling was revealed to be a cold-blooded killer and there was a brand new young dead woman who is going to have to be disposed of and explained away.

As long as no writer gets the supposedly “bright” idea to kidnap and physically abuse Davis, “How to Get Away With Murder” will do fine. Just fine.

And will continue, metaphorically speaking, to get away with murder.


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