Thursday, March 1, 2012
Last night marked the return of television's best new drama since Terriers, a smart, delicious soap that’ll have you eating up the meaningful stares in one moment and chuckling at how it explodes convention the next, say, by introducing a Lost castaway in the middle of all these fancy parties. Since Revenge is on hiatus until April, “Scandal” was just a tantalizing taste of what the show looks like now that it’s caught up to its foreboding opening sequence. Unfortunately, it was such a pungent bite that I’m dying for more. Director Kenneth Fink finds so many dark, expressive visuals that it’s bursting with killer inserts, the cumulative effect like a storm swallowing you up. "Scandal" is also the most pointedly topical Revenge has ever been. It’s always been a show about destroying the lawless rich, but tonight we get a Duke-style media circus that Fink finds equal parts invasive and ridiculous, cruel yet deserved. There's more surveillance than the whole season of Homeland. It’s almost an hour of the expected narrative feints and sublime/ridiculous voice-overs, but it’s riveting because Fink’s direction is so thoughtful. I don’t know if he’s looking for work, but “Scandal” is all the clip reel he needs. He even makes the ho-hum work of television crime scene investigation provocative.
"Scandal" has several moving parts, as usual, but they’re all united under this enormous, wealth-hating sword of Damocles. Daniel’s in judicial limbo, his divorcing parents are trying to help him without sacrificing anything they don’t need to, Declan’s trying to help cover up his brother’s bloody hoodie, Jack’s hellbent on finding Amanda despite his many warnings, and Emily’s trying to get back in control of everything going on in the Hamptons. Charlotte is spinning this tragedy into personal gain, like Daniel’s lawyer Mr. Brooks, and Nolan might actually be untouchable (unless you’re Tyler, am I right?), but there’s a well-earned cloud hanging over much of “Scandal.”
Fink develops a few motifs to express his story. He starts with two big setpieces to set the gloomy tone, the interrogation parade and the drive. Instead of the common method of shooting every interrogation with a static camera, simply replacing the person in the chair, Fink gets a different angle on everyone, appropriate to all the different viewpoints. But they're all dark, tight, and hazy.
It builds into this sad, slow wheel around Daniel Grayson looking like the abused pawn he is.
Then Emily drives Daniel home, and dude's damaged. For a guy who subordinates his will to whomever he talked to last, he actually manages to keep Emily at a distance for a while, and it's positively disconcerting. The haphazard light and shadows aren't helping.
For the rest of the episode, Fink's transitions are full of match cuts, carrying momentum across an entire act (and at one point, over the commercial break and into the next when we fade out on Jack at the bar and back in on an equivalent image the next day). Similarly Fink likes to chase people down hallways. At the police station, it’s used to connect Daniel in a holding cell to the parents in the waiting room, but at Grayson Manor or Nolan’s place, it’s pure momentum. Throw in dialogue that starts in the scene before and the strategy is obvious. Even if the episode isn’t as plotty as the big carnivals we’re used to, it still flies by.
Next he plays with an arsenal of long lenses, which helps focus on the tight-lipped characters while obscuring the background. This results in a handful of scenes where we can only see one duet partner while the other is a blurry shape in the background, a voice in someone’s head.
But the long lens also helps cultivate the media circus. There are more lens flares than in JJ Abrams’ nightmares, the better to signify the cameras all around and the spotlight on these particular one percenters.
Shadows blanket the episode, most glaringly in the courtroom scene, playing dark curtains for the judge’s big show for the cameras.
And angles add further danger . . .
. . . from camera orientation . . .
. . . to makeshift diagonals.
Which brings us to color. It’s a classy, understated milieu, the Grayson/Thorne Hamptons, but Nolan’s yellow is a bold, dangerous invader, not least because it’s the color of sunlight, the last thing Emily (or Victoria, or anyone) wants.
Meanwhile, a big red firework goes off behind Takeda just before Daniel makes his own out of Tyler’s blood.
That’s Fink’s general course—turning all this expected scheming into relentless excitement via editing, shadows, angles, and color—but he also has some fun with a few limited sequences. Emily’s childhood home is typically idyllic, from the flowing fields to the porch swing. We visit it in broad daylight only twice, when Emily finds Jack hasn’t left and when Emily comforts Charlotte, two scenes that are only superficially peaceful.
But we also get a lacerating sense of déjà vu when Daniel is carted off by the cops as Emily stands there helpless, a sequence repeated later at the courthouse, Daniel whisked away to a maximum security facility as Emily just stands there.
Later, Fink plays Brooks’ visit to the bar as a stranger coming to an Old West saloon, all exaggerated horizontals and eavesdroppers. That surprise rack focus to Nolan had me itching for a gunfight.
In fact, the episode is full of horizontals, not just in set design and camera placement but pans, for instance, across a sea of photographers or the shipping men on the docks or the window of Mr. Brooks’ first conversation with Emily and the Graysons. Fink’s hammering home the open-framed landscape of “Scandal,” distance expanding between all these different motives packaged as humans and strangers constantly out of frame, gawking and prying and judging.
Then there’s the scene where Jack comes to Nolan for help. It’s another Old West vision, mostly because it’s shot against the wide, open sky full of flat gray clouds (but also because of Nolan’s spiky palmetto). The beach looks like a desert, but poor Jack just can’t ride off into the sunset.
Finally, we have those flowing white curtains. They’re a huge part of Fink’s obfuscation strategy, pushed aside to reveal first Daniel investigating the Infinity Box and later Mr. Brooks looking into Emily’s secrets.
But they also cool off Victoria and Emily and Victoria and Conrad, constantly billowing during what would normally be tense standoffs.
People seem to have a narrow conception of what quality television looks like, and soap opera ain’t it. But the proof is in the pudding. Like its samurai hero Emily Thorne, you underestimate Revenge at your own peril.