ABC’s Scandal, a new drama by Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice) premiered last night with “Sweet Baby.” Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes, Easy Money, Super 8) gets a job working for her hero, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, Boston Legal, Ray), and has to jump right in. That’s because Olivia is currently jugging two cases. In the first, the firm defends an American military hero, Sully St. James (Wes Brown, Heart of Dixie, True Blood), who looks guilty of murdering his gal. Secondly, U.S. President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn, Ghost, Law & Order: Criminal Intent) asks Olivia to make Julia Tannen (Lisa Weil, Gilmore Girls), who claims she is having an affair with Grant, go away.
This is not Grey’s Anatomy all over again. For those who claim Private Practice and, especially, Off the Map are just retreads of Rhimes’s popular series, Scandal is something completely different. For one thing, there’s only one new kid on the block. For another, it’s in crisis management, not medicine, so the setting will involve more than just one building. There are antagonists, not diseases. It is doubtful everyone in this office will hook up. And there are clear political views trumpeted, such as that homosexuality should be accepted. Not that that should be political, but currently, it is.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some similarities. Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal both boast career-driven, strong personalities willing to go above and beyond the demands of a normal job. The characters in both shows live and breathe their work, and are very good at what they do. Both examine an elite group of professionals who are tasked with being above their peers, the heads of their fields. And both are highly entertaining pieces of drama.
Olivia Pope does not run a law firm. Yes, lawyers work there, but they are in the game of crisis management, which means that they are only concerned about their clients. They don’t go to trials, though one supposes that they might, at some point, since that option is available. But for now, all their work and research is put into just making a problem go away, which viewers quickly learn, they are extremely good at doing.
Their focus on the client also means that crimes don’t necessarily get solved. They clear St. James, but don’t concern themselves with finding the real killer. As such, Scandal does not even come close to copying the various other dramas currently airing on television. Loose threads may sit a little uneasily with some fans, who would like to know what really happened. But that’s hardly the point of “Sweet Baby,” which concerns itself more with human drama than crime solving, so nothing feels missing at the end of the episode, even though the killer isn’t caught.
Scandal inhabits a specific world. As “Sweet Baby” shows, the series takes place in Washington D.C., which many regard as a hub of sin and secrets. With all of the nasty stories about politicians that come out in the news on a regular basis, there should be no shortage of material that Pope and company can deal with. It’s the perfect town for this series to take place in.
At first, the central character, Olivia Pope, may seem infallible. She goes with her gut, which we are told is always right. But in “Sweet Baby,” she allows her heart, or something lower, to overpower her instincts. Turns out, Julia is not lying, and Grant is sleeping with her, just as Grant once did with Julia. Showing this opens up a vulnerability within Olivia, and makes her character at once relatable and human.
This will clearly be the start of an arc for Olivia, with Grant and Julia, as well as Grant’s right-hand-man, Cyrus (Jeff Perry, Grey’s Anatomy, Nash Bridges), appearing in next week’s preview. Adding a serial plot to Scandal not only allows for further character exploration, but provides a reason to tune in week after week. Especially when the tale is only just beginning, and much of the back story remains to be filled in.
As the window in for viewers, Quinn is initially overwhelmed by the firm’s staff, and has to adjust to their tactics. There’s Harrison (Columbus Short, Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip), her assigned mentor. Huck (Guillermo Diaz, Weeds, Mercy) is the tech whiz. Abby (Darby Stanchfield) is a hot mess, and lusts after co-worker Stephen (Henry Ian Cusick, Lost), who is spoken for.
A theme made clear in “Sweet Baby” is that each member of Pope’s team, including Pope herself, is damaged and needs fixed. This group of people is terrific at solving other people’s problems, just not their own. Olivia does her best to seem like the one who has it together, assisting Stephen in his proposal. But she, of course, is in need of work, too. Which makes Scandal‘s main characters and their chosen career ironic and interesting.
Outside of this group resides prosecutor David Rosen (Joshua Malina, The West Wing, In Plain Sight). He cooperates with Olivia to some extent, apparently because she gets results. She doesn’t necessarily make his job easier, but at least she finds the truth. Will David grow tired of the hindrance Olivia and her team are to his job, or will he become a trusted ally who can help guide them on their mission? Only time will tell, but seeing as how conflict builds intrigue, it will likely be the former.
Scandal may spend a bit too much time in “Sweet Baby” hand holding Quinn (and the audience) through what is going on, instead of dropping right into the world, like high quality cable shows do. However, it is probably the best network pilot that has aired this season, full of fantastic actors and enticing plots. Watch Scandal Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.