Olivia Pope has a law degree, but she’s not exactly a lawyer. “Scandal,” the new ABC series (Thursday at 10 p.m.) of which Olivia is the central character, deals a lot with legal matters, but it’s not exactly a legal drama. To be perfectly honest, after watching four episodes of “Scandal,” I’m not 100 percent clear on what it is that Olivia and her team (most of them fellow lawyers who don’t practice law) do, nor on exactly what the show is.
I’m also not entirely sure that it matters. “Scandal” is a good example of what a show is about being far less important than how it’s about it – and when you have Kerry Washington as your star and Shonda Rhimes at her most confident as your creator, the “how” comes pretty easy.
Olivia (Washington) worked on the campaign for the sitting U.S. president (Tony Goldwyn) and now specializes in crisis management in Washington, D.C. She and her team – the supporting cast includes Columbus Short and Henry Ian Cusick (aka Desmond from “Lost”) – wind up handling everything from traditional criminal law cases (in the pilot, a man stumbles into the office covered in blood and says he didn’t kill his girlfriend) to negotiating kidnap and ransom situations to getting into the middle of a controversy involving the president himself.
The series actually opens not with Olivia, but with Short’s Harrison Wright, who’s interviewing new associate Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes). Olivia doesn’t run a traditional law firm, and this isn’t a traditional interview. Quinn thinks she’s on a blind date, and it turns out Harrison isn’t so much interviewing her as trying to dazzle her with Olivia’s name and the notion that he’s “a gladiator in a suit,” a phrase which is recited four different times in under 30 seconds.
I’m not sure “gladiator in a suit” conveys exactly what the team does(*), but it’s a set-up for a bunch of well-dressed, charismatic actors(**) to stride the corridors of power speaking quickly and trying to solve impossible problems.
(*) It’s also somewhat fuzzy what each team member’s specialty is, when that’s half the fun in any kind of story like this about a group of experts. Aside from Guillermo Diaz as Huck, a hacker who apparently used to work for the CIA, everyone else in the ensemble serves the same basic plot function, which is usually “Do what Olivia says while she’s busy doing three other things.”
(**) The unfortunate exception is Lowes, whose character is a real drip. The rookie in a workplace drama is often used as the audience’s entry point – an excuse for someone to explain to the viewer how all this stuff works – but that kind of point-of-view character can be an iffy proposition. Sometimes, you get John Carter on “ER.” Other times, you get Quinn Perkins.
Most charismatic among these actors is Washington. There are always trend pieces about “movie stars doing TV,” and inevitably these “stars” are fine actors who haven’t headlined a big-budget feature in at least 10 years. Washington, on the other hand, seems more like someone who should be a movie star but never quite had that shot. Olivia is very much a star part, the kind where even the scenes she’s not in are usually about her, and she’s got the screen presence to make you believe it. This isn’t a situation where a series is telling you someone is fabulous while failing to show you that she is; Washington owns every moment she’s on camera, and is completely believable as someone who’d feel comfortable charging into the Oval Office to yell at the Commander-in-Chief.
Washington’s so good, in fact, that I didn’t mind that it’s not always clear what makes Olivia’s team so much better than just hiring a standard law firm. Nor was I incredibly troubled with the show’s occasional struggles to balance the case of the week with a larger story arc that puts Olivia in opposition to President Grant.
The rapid pace and the frequent visits to the White House could threaten to make “Scandal” feel like Rhimes’ attempt to do her version of “The West Wing,” but her style of banter isn’t quite the same as Aaron Sorkin’s(***). And “Scandal” is more in the grand soap-y vein of “Grey’s,” where the personal and the professional are so connected as to be indistinguishable. (This is what Fienberg likes to call a Vocational Irony Narrative, and there’s the obligatory scene where a character notes that all of Olivia’s fixers are in need of some fixing themselves.)
(***) “West Wing” alum and Sorkin repertory player Josh Malina has an amusing recurring role as a local DA frustrated to so often be on the losing end to Olivia. (In other Sorkin/Rhimes crossover, Columbus Short played one of the writers on “Studio 60.”)
That formula doesn’t always work (insert memories of your least favorite “Grey’s” story arc here), but when it does, Rhimes is as successful at tugging for the heartstrings as anyone in the business. And because of her and Washington, I’ll give “Scandal” some time to tell me exactly what’s required to be a gladiator in a suit.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org