May 31, 2016 ยท 8 minutes

For pure entertainment value, one of the best shows on television is Shonda Rhimes’ political drama, Scandal.

I’ve been hooked from scene one, episode one, and have followed the adventures of crisis manager Olivia Pope and her on-off boyfriend, President Fitzgerald Grant, through six seasons of election rigging, murder, kidnapping: bus-loads of Grand jurors mown down on the orders of the First Lady, the President’s teenage son drugged to death by a rogue secret service agent, the vice president beaten to death with a folding chair... the shocks keep coming!

Recently though, I’ve found myself growing increasingly dissatisfied with Scandal. The problem is not a lack of drama, but rather a lack of empathy. Bluntly put: there isn’t a single likeable character left in the show.

The relentless twists and turns of half a dozen seasons means all of the series regulars have been forced to reveal themselves as a cold, calculating killers, only to redeem themselves by proving slightly less evil in comparison to a different character, until… just when you were starting to warm to them again… they tear off a baby’s head and shit down its neck. The constant reversals in the show have reached the point of self-parody.

And yet, when it comes to unbelievability and unlikeability, Scandal has nothing on my other favorite long-running drama: The Tech Industry.

As regular viewers will know, the current season of The Tech Industry is the most dramatic yet. Peter Thiel -- yunno, the billionaire defence contractor who thinks women shouldn’t have the vote and is supporting Donald Trump for President -- has just been revealed as the secret backer of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker.

Gawker -- the deliberately cartoonish gossip blog, founded by Brit villain Nick Denton who, you'll remember from last season, said he’d ordered his writers to attack tech companies so he could gain more leverage for himself in Silicon Valley boardrooms. (You’d forgotten that, hadn’t you? It’s ok -- the plot moves fast.)

Anyway, Denton is being sued by a professional wrestler because he published the wrestler’s sex tape. He lost the case, badly, in large part because his chief lieutenant boasted in a deposition that he’d happily publish the sex tape of a four year old. And in case you thought he was kidding, he already published a tape of a college girl being (probably) raped in a bathroom stall. And a former writer once claimed that Denton had encouraged him to falsely accuse a Hollywood actor of rape, for pageviews.

So, to offset this cast of unmitigated shitbags, of course the writers felt they needed a likeable character. Enter Pierre Omidyar: Flashy Iranian-American billionaire founder of eBay. In a previous story arc, viewers had seen Omidyar pledge a quarter of a billion dollars to found investigative journalism site The Intercept and publish the giant cache of documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden (a deal brokered via the show’s comic relief character, Glenn Greenwald.) In this latest twist, Omidyar files a legal brief in defense of Gawker (Peter vs Pierre -- gettit?), and rumors are flying that he might even help the company financially in its battle with Thiel. A true hero! 

Or at least he would seem like a hero… if you haven’t watched Season Three. Because, as regular viewers know, Omidyar isn’t all he seems. In fact, before he reinvented himself as a First Amendment champion, he boasted that he would gladly turn whistleblowers over to the police. He also supported Paypal’s financial blockade against Wikileaks and stood by as the so-called Paypal 14 were prosecuted for fighting back. (Yes, that’s the same Paypal that Omidyar’s company bought from Peter Thiel. Keep up!) We also saw Omidyar making multiple visits to the White House, after which he helped fund a coup in Ukraine, resulting in a conflict that has seen thousands of people slaughtered. And then there were the Indian villagers who committed suicide thanks to the microloans company he helped fund.

But all of that was Last Season Pierre Omidyar. Current Season Pierre Omidyar is the likeable character in the story. At least until he isn’t. At least until the viewer stops to wonder why -- despite all that has happened in previous seasons, and despite its avowed skepticism of Silicon Valley billionaires -- Gawker hasn’t ever published a single negative story about Omidyar. Not one. Or why, for all the involvement of tech companies in government spying revealed in the Snowden files, the Intercept’s reporters have apparently been unable to find a single mention of their boss in any of those documents.

It’s clear we’re being set up for a twist: That Omidyar will ultimately be unmasked as just as bad as Thiel, or even worse! In fact, the telegraphing is a little heavy handed for my tastes: Did the writers really need to make it so that Gawker’s two most senior editors are both former Omidyar employees? Or that the two companies -- Gawker and First Look -- are actually based in the same building? (Could they not afford to build two newsroom sets?) Or that Gawker’s CEO flew to Brazil to have dinner with Greenwald and his husband, not long before Greenwald suddenly proclaimed that Gawker’s publication of rape videos and sex tapes was actually noble because, unlike the New York Times, Gawker didn’t support war in Iraq?

This being the same Glenn Greenwald who, way back in Season One, gave a rousing speech explaining why he himself supported the invasion of Iraq:


"I believed then that the president was entitled to have his national security judgment deferred to, and to the extent that I was able to develop a definitive view, I accepted his judgment that American security really would be enhanced by the invasion of this sovereign country."

I mean, come on. I get Glenn is supposed to be a fucking buffoon, but are we supposed to believe he has amnesia too? Is this whole seasons really a dream?

Which brings me to something else that has always bugged me about Scandal, and which drives me absolutely loopy about The Tech Industry: The way the media is portrayed. In Scandal, it doesn’t matter how cataclysmic the revelation about the President, or First Lady or Olivia Pope -- it just takes a quick press release for all to be forgotten. In The Tech Industry, you can fund a coup, declare war on whistleblowers, mount a hostile takeover of Craigslist and even help a despot be elected as President of India and the press will magically have forgotten all about it by the time you next appear on screen.  

I get the reasoning. You can’t write a political drama, or a business one, without including the media. But to show a press corps doing its job properly would completely screw up the narrative. As the late Blake Snyder wrote explained his iconic screenwriting book, Save The Cat:

You’ll notice that there are no news crews in E.T., the story of an extraterrestrial creature who comes to Earth and into the lives of a similar cul de sac-dwelling family. Sure, you’ve got a really good reason for a news crew. They’ve caught one — a real live alien! And it’s right there for everyone to see. But in rewrites with the screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, Spielberg discovered that it blew the reality of the premise to invite the press in. By keeping it contained among the family and on the block, by essentially keeping this secret between them and us, the audience, the magic stayed real.

A far better approach than having the media investigate the characters is to turn the journalists themselves into characters. In Scandal that means it’s better to make a journalist the President’s next girlfriend or show the former Vice President quit politics after murdering her closeted husband and become a right wing cable host.

In The Tech Industry, better to have all the media outlets acquired by the corporations they cover, and then have them host conferences where billionaires gather to straight-facedly debate questions of media ethics. Fuck, if you wanted to really stretch belief why not have a Comcast-backed media conglomerate host a private conference for billionaires, starring Nick Denton, where Peter Thiel is also invited to debate ethics in a room where critical press is banned and rumors swirl that self-same media conglomerate might about to buy Gawker. Some fans are even predicting that the season might end with an on-stage announcement of the acquision. Too clusterfucky for ya? Too unfucking believeable?

Yeah, I hear you.

Surely the producers of The Tech Industry can’t keep pulling this shit forever. At some point even super-fans won’t stand for it. There must come a point of exhaustion. A point where no matter how many train wrecks the writers throw at us, no matter how many twists and turns, the viewer gets unbelievability fatigue. They start to yearn for likeable characters, or at least a single morally consistent one. They start to wish the characters representing the media would every so often display some institutional memory -- to just once ask one of the main characters: Wait a minute -- aren’t you the guy who did all that unbelievably shady shit last season? Why the hell should we trust a word that comes out of your mouth?

Or maybe I’m wrong. Certainly based on the seasons so far, the formula is working just fine. It keeps getting recommissioned and the dollars keep rolling in.

But that’s not the point. Just because somebody somewhere is making a pile of money and the ratings are holding steady, doesn’t mean viewers of Scandal or The Tech Industry should be treated like idiots. You can only get away with that crap for so long before someone orders a reboot, or worse.