Secrets of Scandal: A Criminal, a Whore, an Idiot and a Liar

By Jess Brownell, Researcher Jan 18, 2013

Mellie and FitzIn this week’s episode of Scandal, a recovering Fitz takes back the White House, but not without a fight from Vice President Sally Langston. Meanwhile, we flashback to the Grant/Langston campaign days to watch Fitz become the President he is today – although the episode leaves us wondering about the authenticity of that achievement, with Olivia finally agreeing to Hollis’ election rigging plan.

Because this episode focuses on flashbacks rather than on a case for Pope and Associates, I want to step away from the usual format of this blog to instead offer an inside look at how the research process works. First of all, I should say that the writers on Scandal are some of the smartest, most well-informed scribes in the biz. We’ve got a few former journalists, a couple who have lived in DC, and many who are serious history buffs and political junkies. So these guys don’t need a ton of help.

So, as researcher, it’s my job (along with a group of consultants who I’ll shout out below) to offer inspiration rather than just information. Every morning, I pore over the headlines and pull scandalous articles and essays for the writers’ perusal. But, unlike some other shows, our storylines on Scandal typically aren’t “ripped from the headlines” – not directly, at least. We’ll use hot news stories, both current and historical, as inspiration and sometimes as jumping off points. We might start with a headline about a missing girl…then decide we are also fascinated with the concept of diplomatic immunity…we then put those two things together to come up with something completely new and unique to the show. (And that, ladies and gentlemen, is “Beltway Unbuckled,” the fourth episode this season.)

Aside from pulling stories for inspiration, it’s also my job to finesse the details of a story once we’ve landed on one. Sometimes that involves a simple web search, sometimes a trip to the library, and other times it involves finding an expert in a specific field who’s willing to share some insight. I regularly work with two top-notch consultants. The fabulous fixer Judy Smith, the woman who inspired the Olivia Pope character, gives notes on each episode to ensure we’re hitting the right PR and political notes, while the multi-talented criminal defense attorney Bruce Cormicle reads each episode to make sure the legal elements of the show are correct.

As I mentioned, the writers are pretty on top of their facts and figures, but occasionally, if they don’t know the proper legal or medical terminology for something, they’ll just write in “legal-legal” or “medical-medical” (we’ve even had a few “computer-computers,” thanks to Huck’s character). Then it’s my turn to use my resources to fill in the blanks. In this episode, some of the research needed included medical information on what Fitz’s recovery would be like after a traumatic brain injury, a look into the structure and format of the three presidential debates, research on voting statistics for our campaign statistician, and a further look into the 25th amendment. (I should note that other departments also do their own killer research to ensure that the costumes and sets look realistic.)

And, of course, despite our best efforts to make everything accurate, we don’t always get every small detail right. But that’s okay, because our characters don’t necessarily live in the world as you and I know it – they live in the Scandal universe, where wearing a crisp white suit somehow never gets you dirty but trying to wear the white hat does. Right or wrong, if you ask me, it’s not a bad world to live in (at least for one hour every Thursday night at 10/9C!).