‘Scandal’ offers a mixture of political intrigue, scandalous (no pun intended) liaisons, and hybrid of episodic storytelling with serialized story arcs — giving viewers a peek into the world of a political fixer forced to face her own scandalous past in order to help those unable (or unwilling) to help themselves.
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that of all of Shonda Rhimes TV offerings, Private Practice remains my favorite, by a country mile. I wasn’t pleased when I first heard that Rhimes’ newest offering, Scandal, had been given Practice’s coveted time slot (following the oldest show in Rhimes’ stable, the venerable Grey’s Anatomy). And I was prepared to hate Scandal, simply for usurping my Private Practice. But four episodes in to the political soap opera and I can safely say I don’t hate it. In fact, I like it a lot. While not perfect, the flaws don’t take away from the brilliance of the series.
The very best part of Scandal is Kerry Washington (perhaps best known for her role in the movie Ray). She is luminous in her role as former White House communications director-turned-crisis-management-in-the-private-sector Olivia Pope. Indeed, she’s so good here that it’s already difficult to imagine anyone else in the role of the smart, savvy, efficient and beautiful Washington mover and shaker.
Olivia’s dedicated her life to protecting and defending the public images of the nation’s elite and keeping those secrets under wraps. The basis of her relationship with her clients lies within her ability to trust them. She’s perceptive, well versed in reading those around her — following her gut is what drives her most in the beginning of the series. She promises to stand firm with her clients — vowing to go to bat for them with the full power of her firm — provided they are truthful. Her job is not to judge them for their indiscretions, but provide the best solution to their problems. Lie to her and you not only lose her support, but you may very well have to face her wrath.
She enjoys a direct pipeline to the leader of the free world, President Fitzgerald Grant, played by the very well-cast Tony Goldwyn. Goldwyn works wonders as the suave, yet vaguely creepy leader of the free world. Not only did Olivia once worked for President Grant as his chief disaster averter, his “fixer” – she’s also his ex-lover, giving us about a gazillion juicy storylines right there. Fortunately, the chemistry between Washington and Goldwyn is strong and there’s a nice zing factor in their shared scenes.
Within each episode, there is usually one self-contained storyline, revolving around Olivia and her staff extracting some rich and/or powerful political figure from a messy situation. It’s fun to see a female character wield that kind of clout on a broadcast TV show, although so far those solved-in-an-hour cases have been largely forgettable.
Far more tantalizing has been the continuing storyline, one that wonderfully showcases the spark between actors Goldwyn and Washington. While the handsome but slightly sinister President may still love our heroine Olivia, that hasn’t kept him from keeping company with another. Enter Amanda (Liza Weil), a Monica Lewinsky-type, ready to blow the lid off her affair with the Prez. There’s been a nice progression here, with Olivia at first refusing to believe her ex-lover had an affair (never mind he also has a WIFE); but then moving on to not only acceptance of the truth; but also to actually taking on Amanda as her own client. I really liked this evolution and I especially appreciated a strong female character who is able to separate her emotions from the truth. You don’t always see that on TV, even though it is 2012.
Moreover, each week we learn new tidbits that help with the intrigue. For instance, the President’s wife, The First Lady, seems to have full knowledge of the President’s tendency to stray. And his chief of staff, Cyrus Beene, seems to also have a less than honorable agenda and may not be as trustworthy as he at first seemed. He also appears to have a pretty big axe to grind with Olivia.
One note of complaint: it’s a little hard to forget that actor Jeff Perry ISN’T Meredith Grey’s father (a pitfall of Shonda Rhimes using the same actors on her different shows). It’s been a little distracting and I half-expect Mer to wander through the Oval Office.
While it’s easy to be swept into the whirlwind that is Olivia, the other supporting characters – Olivia’s “Gladiators In Suits” – are in need of some fleshing out. At this point most are a little forgettable, with the standout of Lost alum Henry Ian Cusick and The West Wing veteran Joshua Malina. On the positive side, Rhimes is slowly unveiling more about Olivia’s team as the weeks pass – requiring viewers to pay close attention to the dialogue as to not miss the nuggets of backstory dropped by other characters. In the newest episode, “Enemy of the State,” Cyrus hires investigator Sanders Black (guest star Leland Orser) to dig into the past of Olivia and her team. We learn that the CIA seems to be very protective of Huck’s (Guillermo Diaz) past, strongly learning on Sanders to drop his inquiry into Huck. Abby (Darby Stanchfield) was married to the son of a Virginia governor, leaving her husband after he allegedly beat her in a drunken rage. Olivia’s newest hire Quinn (Katie Lowes) apparently didn’t exist before 2008 – an interesting development considering Quinn alluded to having a dark past when she met with Amanda earlier in the season. Harrison (Columbus Short) apparently went from selling luxury cars to working for a major firm before a being convicted of insider trading – a deal he managed to get thanks to Olivia, who who represented him pro bono. Then there’s Stephen, a hot shot lawyer who suffered a nervous breakdown in the middle of a major class action lawsuit.
Perhaps the weakest aspect of Scandal is its wannabe West Wing flavor. Sometimes the dialogue (dubbed “Scandal Pace” by the actors) seems to be trying a little too hard to emulate the rapid-fire, walking-and-talking style that NBC’s The West Wing did so brilliantly. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well here, and comes off as rather awkward and contrived, instead.
Beyond that, the pacing of the show is good, with an energy and verge that helps to capture the frenetic pace of Washington politics. As the series progresses, Scandal builds on a very nice momentum established the week before. If that flow can be maintained, Scandal could enjoy a long and entertaining run.