There’s always a crisis
Shonda Rhimes has a new show.
Well, technically, ABC has a new show, called “Scandal,” which, like the network’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” is created by Rhimes, a woman no one will ever accuse of sloth. It is, in some ways, a new kind of show. For one thing, it has a black woman as lead, a quality so rare it requires mention, and for another, it is a Washington, D.C.-based procedural that deals not with law or crime or politics, but all three, through the weird underground system of what was once called spin-doctoring and is now known as crisis management.
In other ways, “Scandal” is an old show, which is to say that watching it will remind you of Rhimes’ other shows -- there will be as much angst as ambition and a lot of speechifying about how the world works -- but also of “The West Wing” and maybe even “Criminal Minds.”
“Scandal’ is based on real-life D.C. crisis manager Judy Martin, but that’s like saying Willie Wonka is based on Milton Hershey. Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) isn’t just a crisis manager, she’s The Crisis Manager, a woman of supernatural energy, insight and influence, able to tell at a glance whether a potential client is guilty, willing to stare down Russian thugs and law enforcement officials alike, capable of summoning swaths of information at her fingertips and the president on her cellphone, all while keeping her white trench coat perfectly belted and pristine.
She also talks in highly syncopated sentences that often include switchbacks of personal digressions without breaking eye contact, as does everyone around her. Which is odd, when you think about it, all this verbal homogeneity, but maybe not, because everyone loves/fears/admires/worships Olivia Pope. Including and especially her associates: Stephen Finch (Henry Ian Cusick), a dapper cad lawyer on the cusp of settling down; Harrison Wright (Columbus Short), a brilliant litigator who describes himself as “a gladiator in a suit”; Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield), the ice queen investigator; and Huck (Guillermo Diaz), the hacker with the CIA past. When, in the opening scene, Harrison informs newbie lawyer Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes) that Olivia Pope wants to hire her, Quinn practically has a stroke.
Olivia Pope is not just the ultimate fixer, she also manages to work only on the side of the angels.
Her only flaw is her love for the married president (Tony Goldwyn), even though he is clearly a jerk. That and her willingness to keep a baby in a box. When we meet Olivia, she and Stephen are offering armed Russian thugs $3 million for something that was supposed to cost $6 million; one short, firmly delivered speech later, Olivia is walking away from the cowed mobsters with a file box. Later, back at the office, it is opened to reveal the kidnapped infant of a diplomat. A baby who has, apparently, traveled from the warehouse where the drop took place to Olivia’s office where it sat around for a while in a file box. Which is absurd, and possibly illegal (Did they drive? Take the subway?), but never mind. The baby in the box tells you all you need to know about “Scandal” -- realism will bend to the reveal every single time.
Rhimes remains an admirably consistent raiser of social consciousness in her work; beneath their highly emo-veneer, her shows are quite radical both in their diverse casts and frank discussions of generally taboo topics. But there is also a quality of fantasy, an idealistic romanticism that can be touching but is just as often cloying. People talk a lot in “Scandal,” as they do in “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” constantly stating and restating the tenets of their own psychologies, examining their own motives with an intensity that borders on fetishism. Here, words are used the way Jack Bauer used torture or technology, as the ultimate objects of power.
This would be interesting were not Rhimes so determined to make Olivia Pope a superhero. Everything in “Scandal” is perfect; the trench coat, the offices, the politically correct subplots, the baby in a box -- and perfect quickly stops resonating with those of us who are not.
It’s entertaining, though, distracting in a highly caffeinated way, and Washington and Cusick are especially fun together, but at no point do the characters seem like people or the venue anything but a fast-paced, occasionally clever television show. Which, of course, is precisely what it is.
When: 10:01 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)