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'Scandal' Bumps up Against Reality and Donald Trump
May 12, 2016  | By David Hinckley

Warning: Contains spoilers from previously aired episodes of Scandal.

One of the big questions hovering over Thursday night’s season finale of Scandal is whether the ABC show has made the right bet on its own political lineup.

Much of this year has been devoted to the devious jockeying among candidates who want to replace Fitz Grant (Tony Goldwyn) as the next President.

That’s not all the season has been about. There’s been plenty of room for backstabbing, infidelity, sinister manipulation and did we mention that Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) beat former Vice President Andrew Nichols (Jon Tenney) to death with a folding chair?

In other words, Season 5 has been another day at the office for Scandal.

But creator Shonda Rhimes has clearly relished the chance to run the show’s own primary election campaign parallel to the one unfolding in the real world.

One of the presumptive nominees, for instance, is Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), who was married to Fitz Grant when he assumed the office and thus spent some time as First Lady. During that time her husband cheated on her. Later she became a U.S. senator and decided to run for President.

You can’t make this stuff up, right?

Then partway through the campaign, another candidate suddenly emerged, someone we had briefly met as a shady businessman a couple of seasons earlier.

That was Hollis Doyle (Gregg Henry, left). He’s a big, blustery fellow who has thin light hair and an air of total forceful confidence as he revs up crowds by talking about how it’s time to keep immigrants out of America.

Imagine that.

At a time when much of prime-time broadcast TV is pretty apolitical, or keeps its politics abstract, this storyline has given Rhimes and Scandal an interesting edge.

But then, two weeks ago, Olivia set up a meeting with Hollis where she got him to confide that he didn’t really believe all the racist redneck stuff he was saying. It was only bait, he said, to get a lot of dumb, gullible fish on his line.

Unfortunately for Hollis, Olivia was taping their little chat. She shared the tape, and by the end of the episode it seemed like this revelation had cut Hollis off at the knees.

So it looks like the Scandal presidential race, heading into the fall, will be Mellie Grant vs. good-guy Pennsylvania Gov. Frankie Vargas (Ricardo Chavira, below).

There’s enough material in that showdown for Rhimes to have some election-time fun, though it’s now an open question whether the Scandal election will overlap the real one. Scandal didn’t premiere until late October this season, and with Washington’s recently announced pregnancy, the network and producers might move next season’s shooting schedule and premiere date even further back.

Whether or not Scandal’s election coincides with America’s, Rhimes’s gamble lies in apparently having knocked the Trump-esque character out of the her race.

She’s had a lot of fun with him, though she never let him dominate the show. This set her apart from real-life news networks, which cut to the real-life Trump for a half hour every time he ties his shoelace.

One problem for Rhimes may have been that the real Trump arose too late for her to carve out a credible place for him on the show. For Hollis Doyle to get the Republican presidential nomination, Rhimes would have had to bump Mellie, whom she’s been guiding toward that position for five seasons.

There was no way Hollis could have run as a Democrat, and even on a show that is world-renowned for unlikely plot twists and contortions, it’s hard to imagine Mellie switching over and getting the Democratic nomination.

All this said, however, Scandal is not yet finished for the year. So while Thursday’s finale seems primed to set up Mellie vs. Frankie in the fall, it would be highly unwise to assume that Rhimes couldn’t pull off another twist or two.

Almost as unwise as assuming last July that the real Donald Trump didn’t need to be taken seriously.

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