Scandal debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
There are plenty of things around which to build a successful television show. You can have a strong premise, which can cover up some of the deficiencies in the casting. You can have a strong ensemble, which is enjoyable enough to spend time with that you can overlook the suspect storytelling. Or, you can have a singularly great lead performance that will carry you through, over, and/or around any other problematic aspects of the program. For the first few hours, Scandal falls firmly into the third category. That’s not to say everything besides Kerry Washington’s performance is subpar. It’s just that her performance overwhelms the first few episodes to the point that anything else is almost rendered moot.
Washington plays Olivia Pope, former communications director for the current President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn). She runs a crisis management firm in Washington, D.C., which puts her in contact not only with the White House but also various aspects of D.C. society. We’re introduced to her firm via new recruit Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes), who is brought on for semi-mysterious reasons. There, Quinn meets other members of Pope’s team: ex-lawyers, PIs, and a hacker, all of whom pay deference to Pope in ways reverential. But their near-constant state of awe is earned: Pope commands the room whenever she’s in it, has a fierce intellect, and knows both the city and the system enough to aid the people that walk through her front door seeking her assistance.
Washington’s performance is strong without being showy. She’s an African-American lead in an American network drama, but Scandal doesn’t bother to make note of this fact. Creator Shonda Rhimes doesn’t call attention to her gender or ethnicity, but rather to her applicable (and sizable) skillset in helping out her clients. Pope is a powerful presence due to her brainpower and moral composition, which makes up for the fact that the rest of her firm is nearly non-existent in terms of personality or actual character development in these early hours. Moreover, while these characters nominally have different skillsets to help Pope aid their clients, there’s little in the way of a Leverage-type breakdown of how these people are specifically deployed to access information. Usually, it boils down to knowing a police officer or coroner. That’s not unimportant, but it's hardly unique enough to justify the firm’s formidable reputation.
Each of the first few episodes features a case-of-the-week balanced with an ongoing story involving The White House. Those expecting a gritty look at the underbelly of Washington will be disappointed. Those expecting the wonkiness of The West Wing will likewise find Scandal lacking. Seeing Rhimes’ name attached to this project should tip you off that the primary concerns of the show revolve around the soapier aspects of these characters’ lives. That’s not to slam the show for having such concerns above and beyond the other two categories. But knowing what one is getting into will help manage expectations and also increase enjoyment. If you’re upset that the “soldier with a secret” in the pilot has the most obvious secret possible, well… this show may not earn a spot on your DVR. Politics are essentially window-dressing for the show. That's not a bug, and it's occasionally even a feature.
For instance, the White House arc figures prominently into Pope’s past: specifically, why she no longer works for President Grant. Giving away specifics is giving away a primary narrative element of Scandal, but suffice to say there’s a tangled emotional web between Pope, Grant, and several members of the administration with whom Pope once worked. Goldwyn’s Grant initially seems inscrutable for the wrong reasons, but eventually turns out to be the correct choice for this character. He’s no Richard Nixon, but he’s far from the fictional Jed Bartlet, either. It’s hard to tell if Grant is exhibiting repressed romanticism or muted malevolence, and it makes the swirling scandal around his office more compelling than it probably has any right to be. Giving Pope an emotional stake in that particular story actually makes Rhimes’ focus work for the show, rather than against it. There are times in which this storyline tips dangerously towards telenovela-esque melodrama, but Scandal and specifically Washington manage to pull up just before crash landing.
The fact that the other secondary characters don’t pop in the first three hours isn’t a huge concern. After all, television shows often need time to develop characters other than the leads. But with only a seven-episode run under its belt this spring, Scandal will have to do some heavy lifting quick to make this more than a one-woman show. Granted, that’s a pretty great one-woman show, but over the long term there needs to be more balance to really make this show sing. Henry Ian Cusick conveyed wonderful depth as Desmond Hume on Lost, but here, he mostly spends his time fighting to repress his accent. Josh Malina is a welcome presence, but is largely wasted as Pope’s semi-frenemy. His character, a U.S. attorney aiming toward higher political office, serves mostly exposition needs in the first two hours, although there’s a hint of juicier stuff for him down the line. That third hour also adds some shading to several key figures inside the White House, which justifies the time spent on the season-long narrative within those walls.
But this is the Kerry Washington Show in the early hours. And quite frankly, that’s more than enough to justify watching this show. Despite the many problems and potholes in these first installments (and there are MANY), most of them dissipate the moment Pope holds court onscreen. There’s nothing flashy about what Washington does. But there’s a confidence in every moment that should make people stand up and take notice. It’s infrequent that you get to watch an actor own a role from minute one. So while the edifice around her is wobbly at the outset, keep your eyes on Washington as she supports the entire endeavor on her shoulders. She’ll need to share the load down the line, but this is a fine start for both her and the show.
- If you’re freaked out by the rapid dialogue in the show’s opening scene, fear not: Much like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, the initial overly-spastic energy soon simmers to a more manageable boil.
- Quinn’s introduction to the firm keeps in line with many other shows that use a newbie to introduce an established world. But there’s no sense by the end of the third hour why Pope picked her in particular. It’s unclear if this is a Damages-type scenario or if the show really never plans to explain Quinn’s overall importance.
- While the first two cases-of-the-week can be solved within the first few minutes, there’s a pretty decent twist in the third installment that I didn’t see coming.
- I’ve purposefully obscured the long-running scandal inside the White House, since unraveling that is one of the principle pleasures of the show. The show’s seven-episode run actually works in its favor in this regard, as information gets doled out with a satisfying pace.
- The show can be plenty preachy and corny. (My GOD, some of these music cues!) But there’s a particularly harrowing monologue about the backlog for analyzing rape kits that cuts to the quick.