[Spoilers ahead for Thursday night’s episode of Scandal]
Shonda Rhimes’s hit TV show Scandal often utilizes ripped-from-the-headlines storylines to propel its political drama. An episode earlier in this fifth season explored the undercover Planned Parenthood videos and featured a montage in which the show’s main character, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), undergoes an abortion set to the hymn “Silent Night.”
So, it’s no surprise that Rhimes would look to the current presidential race for fresh story ideas — and on Thursday night’s episode, the show introduced a character based on real-life Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.
In Scandal-world, Trump is Hollis Doyle (Gregg Henry), a billionaire Republican oil magnate from Texas who comes to D.C. to meet with presidential aspirants Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) and Susan Ross (Artmeis Pebdani). Doyle played a major role in the second season when he helped President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) win his first election by rigging the vote in an Ohio town. Now he’s back, and, like all moneyed power players, he wants something in return for his campaign checks.
The character doesn’t get much screen time in this episode, but his story will play out across this season’s three remaining episodes. If that’s the case, the writers may want to dig deeper into the character, because Thursday night’s episode (which Rhimes teased in an appearance at PaleyFest earlier this week) was nothing more than a sort-of bingo card of Trumpisms that serve to illustrate just how horrible he is.
“Well, screw me sideways!” Doyle/Trump exclaims as he meets with Grant in her office. “Divorce suits a woman well. I can see it in your hips, you’re leaner and meaner.”
For those playing Trump Bingo at home, that’s two boxes we can check off. “Vulgar:” check. “Sexist:” check.
Doyle wants Grant to promise to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) if she becomes president (duh, he’s an oil man). In return, she’ll get a half-billion dollar check, right there in the office.
Again, we can check two Trump boxes here: “Opportunist,” and “Evil Environment Destroyer.”
When Grant says she can’t make that promise, Doyle tells her he’ll meet with her rival presidential contender, Vice President Susan Ross, and “see how far up her skirt she’s willing to let me go.”
Later on in the episode, Doyle flat-out steals Grant’s entire campaign platform and strategy, including her slogan, “Embrace America’s Tomorrow” (Grant, in an earlier scene, foolishly spilled everything over drinks) and announces his own candidacy from his old elementary school.
“I want to end racism, end poverty, and this is the place to start,” he tells a cheering crowd. “These kids are going to have to work hard. No shortcuts. And if you’re some pesky little border-crosser, a sad little refugee begging for handouts, you will not be welcome, no sir.”
Ah, there’s the last box: “Anti-immigrant xenophobe.” To cap it all off, Ross complains to the president that Doyle will turn the election into a “circus.” And there you have it. I’ve got Bingo.
The crux of the thing is this: The show’s writers lazily threw together the Doyle/Trump connection in the most obvious possible ways, and the result is a character who is nothing more than an ineffective parody of the complex figure he is supposed to represent. Even if the character gets fleshed out in the fifth season’s remaining episodes, Thursday night’s show was way too obvious, too easy, and far less compelling than the historic real-life election story that inspired it.
Even left-wing media noted the same thing, albeit for different reasons. In her review of the episode for Slate, Aisha Harris writes that the Doyle character “never feels like more than a pale imitation, a laughable attempt at crystallizing just how disturbing Trump is.”
“I wouldn’t blame the Scandal writers or [Gregg] Henry’s performance entirely, though—if anything, Hollis is proof that the Trump machine has become so real, so worrisome, so incredibly dangerous, that pretty much any attempt to dramatize or satirize his rise at this moment, in the very thick of it all, won’t land all that effectively,” she writes.
Say what you will about Trump and the Doyle character (for his part, the actor in the role believes Trump will go on to secure the Republican nomination, even though he supports Hillary Clinton), but if your television character is less interesting than the real-life man who inspired him, it’s time to return to the drawing board.