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It's the end of the line for 'Scandal'

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Kerry Washington stars as Olivia Pope in "Scandal." Photo: Courtesy ABC
Kerry Washington stars as Olivia Pope in "Scandal." Photo: Courtesy ABC  

There are only two more episodes, April 12 & 19, until the series finale of "Scandal," and we can't quite imagine the TV political landscape without it. For seven seasons we have loved this show and how it paralleled real-life Washington in a myriad of ways as a shadow presidency. There were brilliant performances: Joe Morton, Jeff Perry, Khandi Alexander, Kate Burton, all did some of the best work of their careers.

"Scandal" broke ground. Showrunner and mega-producer Shonda Rhimes proved that there could be a prime-time series with a black female lead (Kerry Washington as Beltway fixer Olivia Pope) on the second most coveted ratings night of the week, and it could not only succeed but also excel.

Rhimes even gave us a lead gay male character as White House Chief of Staff and kept him in the foreground through all seven seasons. She gave him a love-of-his-life husband, a child, a second husband when the first one was murdered, and two lovers. She gave us middle-aged gay male sex in prime-time on network.

"Scandal" has addressed many issues du jour, including corruption, covert ops, sexual harassment and, in the last two seasons, a woman president. There have been several memorable gay storylines connected to international intrigue, gay men and lesbians fleeing other countries to live free in the U.S. One escaped with his life, another lost hers.

The core story that propelled this series forward was Olivia Pope's (Kerry Washington). She was a character who checked all the boxes: brilliant, beautiful, cunning, savvy, sexy, vulnerable, driven. She fell in love with the president, and tried to fall in love with a murderous operative working for him. She had a cadre of "gladiators" in "white hats" who worked for her to fix the unfixable and right the wrongs only Washington creates.

But always lurking in the background was Liv's own personal history: the loss of her mother in a plane crash when she was 12, and being raised by her father, Eli Pope (Joe Morton). The relationship between Liv and Eli was unlike anything else on TV. Eli headed a black ops section of the CIA, B613, with his cover being curator of antiquities at the Smithsonian. He was brilliant at both. As delicate as he was with an ancient text, he was as brutal with a renegade operative. Where Liv saved lives, Eli took them. But Morton made the monster real, believable, and most disturbingly, human.

There are scenes and episodes from "Scandal" we shall never forget. Rhimes knows how to tear away the thin veneer that protects us from ourselves and expose the parts that make us most vulnerable. She told stories to which black America nodded knowing assent, and which educated white America about so much.

She did the same with Jeff Perry's character, Cyrus Beene, the ruthless Chief of Staff who wanted to be POTUS but was kept from it by his gayness. In season 3, Cyrus and his husband James (Dan Bucatinsky) have a fight, naked, that is every fight you've ever had with your gay partner. It's not a fight straight people have, and it was as searing as a scene out of Edward Albee, but far more humane.

On April 5, Liv tried to kill Cyrus, the man who was once her mentor, then her friend, and now her frenemy. It didn't work. We have no idea what will happen in the final two episodes to wrap this wild, intense and thoroughly engaging series that has shown just how easy it is to take a wrong political turn with the best of intentions and lose an election, or perhaps your soul.

Amazing 'Grace'

April 5 was also the season finale of "Will & Grace" and we have never been happier to have been wrong about a re-boot. A few months ago we couldn't imagine what the fey foursome of Will, Grace, Karen and Jack had to offer 20 years after the series first debuted. As the hilarity of the season finale proved, "Will & Grace" redux was telling a new story. This story was no longer about 30somethings struggling to make their lives work, but about middle-aged gay men and middle-aged straight women (although Karen often seems to be bisexual) trying to situate themselves in a world that seems to value only the freshness, vitality and insouciance of youth.

In the new "W&G," there was seriousness undergirding some of the story, but the jokes continued to be good. Debra Messing (Grace) and Megan Mullally (Karen) are old-school comediennes, playing off their femaleness like Lucille Ball or Mary Tyler Moore. We know these women, and we enjoy their company. Grace's awkwardness and self-questioning feel real and, within the confines of a sitcom, probative. Karen's casual mean-girl barbs are never meant to eviscerate, just keep others from getting too close. Her sexual escapades are legendarily meaningless, but her affair with Malcolm (Alec Baldwin) challenges her independence.

In the season finale, as Karen attempts to break it off, Malcolm uses her manservant Smitty (Charles Stevenson) as a manqué, kissing him as he would Karen, to which she quips, "I hear that's how Mike Pence and his wife have sex, through his trainer."

For his part, Smitty shuffles out, muttering, "Hashtag, me too."

Some things have remained unchanged since the first eight-season run. Will and Jack are foils in this re-boot, as they were in the original. Will is The Good Gay, trying to make a life with meaning and purpose, but as unsure 20 years later that he's chosen the right path as he was as an up-and-coming gay attorney. And Jack? Still "Just Jack," but now everything is a little harsher as he's no longer That Boy and he's not sure what happens next. In the season finale Jack meets an airline steward about whom he says, "He served me warm nuts and locked me in the upright position."

It was a risky choice, bringing this show back, and we never thought it could work in 2018, when the climate is so much more open to gayness and the shock of seeing two men kissing on network TV in prime time is so last decade. We were happily wrong. If you missed this season, binge it on Hulu. "W&G" has been renewed for another season, so there will be more in the fall.

If there hadn't been "W&G," we would never have watched "Champions," which has followed it in the Thursday night comedy line-up on NBC since its debut March 8. We like sitcoms when they are funny and put in front of us, but we don't seek them out like we do dramas.

"Champions" is quirky and funny, and the lead character is gay. Very gay. Harvey Fierstein if he were a 15-year-old Indian theatre-maven gay. The show was created by Mindy Kaling ("The Mindy Project") and Charlie Grandy ("The Daily Show").

Kaling plays Priya Patel, mother of 15-year-old Michael (J.J. Totah), flamingly gay son of the guy she dated in high school, Vince (Anders Holm), a former athlete. Vince is a gym owner who lives with his brother Matthew (Andy Favreau) and dates a bazillion women when Priya drops his son in his lap because Michael wants to attend a prestigious performing arts school in New York, and Vince is right there. Hilarity ensues.

"Champions" is a bit of a mess. The "Glee" aspect of the show hasn't gelled, and there are too many repetitive running-joke scenes at the gym. But the cast is good, and the jokes are funny.

What makes "Champions" a must-see is J.J. Totah, who is simply fantastic. His Michael is both cutting and earnest, a young queen oh-snapping his diva way through his father's and uncle's lives as they desperately try to adjust and catch up. Vince really wants to be a good dad, and Matthew really wants to be the cool uncle (he carries flash cards with pop culture references in an effort to meet Michael on his level). Michael is just so far ahead of where they both are.

Some aspects of "Champions" are reminiscent of "The Real O'Neals," which crashed and burned a year ago. It may suffer from some of the same problems of centering the gay boy as the putative lead. But Totah is so good, his portrayal so very real, and his Michael is what we need to see: a truly gay teen, no apologies, no pretense of straightness. We have high hopes for the show. Do take a look.

NBC is hosting other gay teens on "Rise," and last episode a fight broke out at a party after Michael (Ellie Desautels), the newly transitioning trans guy, was cornered and asked a host of gawdawful questions about surgeries and genitalia.

Michael tried hard to answer the queries in the spirit of transparency, because he's sweet and wants to fit in, and genuinely believes he can make it easier on himself by being as open as possible about the process of transitioning. But these are jocks and they're just being voyeuristic. They start talking about how Michael won't have a penis, and it gets ugly fast. The boys don't really listen and don't want to, and when the fight breaks out, Michael looks crushed. This felt both hyper-realistic and very sad.

We thought Arizona was actually going to get a storyline on "Grey's Anatomy" when she and Owen went undercover to expose a doctor posing as an oncologist and treating women for breast cancers they never really had. The ultra-sound showed a tumor and Arizona burst into tears while Owen looked stricken. But back at the hospital she had the same tests and no sign of a tumor. The doctor was using ultrasounds of patients with cancer to trick new patients.

It was a compelling storyline, but it was over with the episode. Arizona has been the only lesbian in Seattle since she and Callie broke up in 2016. She's had a couple of flings and an ill-fated affair with a bisexual Italian doctor who left her for a man, and now even her child wants to go back to living with Callie.

We hope Arizona isn't taken off the canvas at the end of this season after nine years on the show. She's a terrific character and integral to the medical side of the "Grey's Anatomy" story. But she's too young, too smart and too hot not to have someone to be lesbians with. We didn't want her to have cancer, but we do want her to have a storyline.

There's plenty of story on "Instinct," Alan Cumming's new series. And it's groundbreaking -t here's never been a series on network with a lead character who is a gay man. So why isn't the show better? We feel as if we've seen this show before in other incarnations, including CBS' own "Elementary." We love Cumming, but this show drags itself down with cliches, an excess of normalcy and way too many quips.

Bravo brought "Imposters" back for a second season (stylized as "Imposters2" if you're searching for it. It debuted April 5, and it's even better this season than last, even though we know what the quartet is up to now. Replete with more than one LGBT storyline. Plus the boys are hot, the girls are hot, and everyone is really witty.

Finally, shows you should be watching: "Mary Kills People," a stellar neo-noir drama about euthanasia with a lesbian teen triangle; season 3 of "UnReal," the dark dramedy about a TV show like "The Bachelor," which has two competing gay storylines and some amazing glimmers of gay sex; "Killing Eve," a noir-spy thriller on BBC America starring "Grey's Anatomy" alum Sandra Oh; "Nate and Jeremiah: By Design," the TLC gay interior design meets gay couple raising two kids reality series; "Quantico," which returns to ABC April 26 for a third season with more complicated gay storylines and because the Trump administration isn't scary enough; season 2 of Hulu's Emmy-winning hit series "A Handmaid's Tale" will be ready April 25. Last but not least, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" has been renewed for a second season. Another superb re-boot.

So for musical gay teens, wandering solo lesbians, murderous gay chiefs of staff and the repression of Margaret Atwood, you know you really must stay tuned.

Kerry Washington stars as Olivia Pope in "Scandal." Photo: Courtesy ABC

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