Ever notice the sound of clicking flashbulbs at the commercial breaks in Scandal (2012)? These “photobursts,” which feature increasingly magnified stills, create a cool look and spare the audience a cheesy wrap-up tagline (think David Caruso in CSI Miami). They also communicate scene location, passage of time, or explain a prop quickly. Aside from their use in the progression of the plotline, these showy transitions evoke the gimmicky tactics involved in reporting on news in our nation’s capitol. Along with other deliberate editing techniques in Scandal, these photobursts establish a vocabulary to code the characters’ behavior as morally acceptable.
The series is about Olivia Pope, a political fixer who is also having an affair with the now-president. In the pilot, after Pope haggles down blackmailers by 50%, we are shown two photobursts of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln memorial. By comparing the unseemly negotiation to the iconic DC locale, the editors save themselves valuable frames. “This is Washington,” the effect says silently. “Corrupt while also maintaining its own warped balance of power.”
The next scene shows Olivia in her office, somehow having returned to meet her new recruit in record time. The photoburst signals that time has passed and permits omission of mundane things like travel time, entrances and exits. The editors challenge the viewer to keep up. The quickly cut scenes push the exposition along, spinning Pope and Associates as “good-guy gladiators” as elegantly as the firm fixes its clients’ deviances. The dialogue is also delivered at lightning pace, denying the viewer time to process and form an organic impression of the characters in Scandal. They glide through the episode, defying laws of time, space, and physical exhaustion. Through editing, the production team persuades us that the characters’ kind-hearted heroism makes even their most tawdry offenses charming in comparison.
The quickly cut bursts of exposition succeed in diminishing the characters’ repugnance only when paired with the show’s slower beats—the “feelings” scenes. These unhurried conversations, embraces, and apologies are told in close-ups or medium shots with slowly delivered dialogue and plenty of pregnant pauses. Later in the pilot, the President’s team exits the Oval Office, leaving him and Olivia alone. The old affair is revealed. Six long, silent seconds pass as we watch the couple almost kiss. “We’re being real now,” the camera seems to say. In this emotionally fraught scene, we are even treated to an exit: Olivia’s, as she steadies herself momentarily before opening and walking out the door. When the various characters’ indiscretions are revealed, they are suddenly allowed the human concessions of a blink, a tear, or an exit.
By juxtaposing heavily manipulated and accelerated exposition sequences with downbeat and relaxed displays of emotion, the producers of Scandal use editing to effectively provide intimate and dynamic portraits of political figures. The show’s editing distinguishes clearly between two distinct moods, sometimes displaying the men and women behind the politics and other times exhibiting their expert play in the political game. In this stylistic differentiation, the creators effectively illustrate the challenges of maintaining a public reputation and a successful private life at once. Scandal achieves refreshing authenticity in portraying the contradictions implied in being both a political figure and a human being.