Kerry Washington plays the much-feared Olivia Pope, a former White House aide who has gained a reputation as a clandestine cleaner of high-profile dirt.
Did your handsome trust-fund baby rape a drunk co-ed? Call Olivia Pope. Is your Oval Office occupant being harassed by a lovelorn junior staffer? Olivia Pope. Has the Russian mafia kidnapped your baby from the consulate? Police, nyet; Olivia, da! Did your much-medaled Iraq war hero shoot his fiancee in the head? Get Olivia on it, if for no other reason than for her remarkable ability to move about Washington with nary a thought to traffic or Metro escalator outages. The lady gets from Union Station to Georgetown in nanoseconds and always arrives with perfect, expensive hair that has never known the terror of a raindrop or 93 percent humidity. She struts her way into the White House with merely a box of cupcakes for the guard.
Without the need for me or anyone else to even try to intellectualize it, “Scandal” rather effortlessly launches itself with a strong black woman in the lead role. That elusive casting decision that networks claim is so hard to successfully accomplish? Well, it doesn’t look all that hard here. Washington is terrifically watchable in a coldhearted but complex way.
This is partly because of the source material. “Scandal” is loosely — I mean, looooooosely — based on the career of one Judy Smith, a real-life Washington PR expert who has guided clients through bombshells and bad press. She’s handled aspects of your basic corporate malfeasance, celebrity slip-up, Monica Lewinsky and Iran-Contra imbroglios and whatnot. But Smith apparently did so in a clandestine way all these years, without a fancy office or by calling attention to her persona.
Now, having rebranded herself as “America’s No. 1 Crisis Management Expert” (with a new book out, “Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities Into Your Biggest Assets”), Smith would like a little of your attention. Serving as a producer on “Scandal” is just another step in that process.
I give “Scandal” points for explaining its set-up so well. Olivia’s company is not a law firm or PR firm, so what is it? It’s a lawless realm in which all things are possible.
Olivia sends one of her “gladiators in a suit,” Harrison (Columbus Short), to offer a job to a Capitol Hill newbie named Quinn (Katie Lowes), who stammers her acceptance and is then whisked away to Olivia’s lofty aerie, where she meets the rest of the strike team: a snippy investigator (Darby Stanchfield), an oddball hacker (Guillermo Diaz) and a smooth attorney (“Lost’s” Henry Ian Cusick). When a war hero-turned-celebrity-conservative-pundit shows up in their office with blood on his shirt and a dead girlfriend back home, they are so on it.
Now we’re no longer in Washington — not that we ever were. Despite some stock interstitial jump cuts of the memorials and Capitol, there’s no Washington here at all. Instead, we’re in a place I call “Kalindaville,” which I named after the implausibly intrepid law firm investigator played by Archie Panjabi on “The Good Wife.” Anyone who has watched TV in the past decade knows about Kalindaville already, with its easily sweet-talked assistant prosecutors, its pizza-bribed cops, its one-hour autopsy results and its omnipotent security footage tapes.
“Scandal” is also filled to the brim with ridiculous, tough-talk dialogue that is as difficult to write as it is to say. It reminded me of a “Saturday Night Live” skit several weeks back that made fun of that “Woman of the Year”-like banter from old films. Zooey Deschanel played a young reporter who couldn’t understand — much less speak like — her Hepburn-Tracy colleagues in the newsroom. The joke was that those people talked too fast.
But they had nothing on today’s TV crime-solvers, lawyers and fixers. These people babble on in a forceful, threatening, yet almost lyrical way. This wholly invented patter has some linguistic kinship to those rambling “walk with me” monologues of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” but also the diatribes of Dennis Leary’s stage act and something of the flavor of a hip-hop smackdown.
Whenever people try talking like that on reality shows, somebody just winds up holding a fistful of somebody else’s hair weave. But on “Scandal,” it’s just the lingua franca — as well as the preferred management style.
If “Scandal” were only about its procedural client work, it would be just another ho-hum affair. But it’s also got a wickedly audacious long arc involving the White House, where Olivia’s true love happens to be the married commander in chief (Tony Goldwyn as President Fitzgerald Grant — honest to God, that’s what a president is named in this bizarro Washington).
“Our spot, 10 minutes,” the president whispers in Olivia’s ear while the two dance at a state dinner.
“You can’t leave your own state dinner,” she snaps, staring off in the distance as they waltz.
“Watch me,” he says.
This scenario propels “Scandal” so far over the top that it hasn’t landed yet. I predict when it does, we’ll hear a distant thud, but in the meantime, it’s fun to watch it fly.
(one hour) premieres Thursday
at 10 p.m. on ABC.