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TV Tonight: Scandal

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ABC

Henry Ian Cusick and Kerry Washington.

Scandal, the new ABC drama from mega-producer Shonda Rhimes, is set in the world of politics, which is not to say that it is a political drama. It’s about politicians, and the associates and secret lovers around them. There are even the occasional political stances expressed, as when one character argues against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or another decries how the Republican Party has pushed out moderates. But the politics are scene-setting for a drama that is about power and how it is threatened by personal indiscretions that originate below the belt, not in the Beltway. “Screwing around,” it notes, in what could be the show’s motto, “seems to be a bipartisan effort.”

The show stars Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, a former lawyer and White House aide who now runs a crisis-management firm that tries to extricate clients from public embarrassments, if not keep the embarrassments from surfacing in the first place. She’s recruited a team of Washington’s best to perform one of Washington’s most necessary functions. (The beginning of the series, in which Quinn [Katie Lowes], a fresh-faced recruit, is brought into the firm, recalls a less-menacing variation on the premiere of Damages. Call it Damages Control.)

As the pilot relentlessly tells us, her team members have law degrees, but they’re not a law firm. They’re “gladiators in suits.” Yes, they say that, straight-faced, and a lot. This being Washington, some of the characters take themselves very seriously, but Scandal, to its credit, mostly does not.

Although Scandal is not a politics show, the series does seem to owe a little to The West Wing–in particular, the fast-fast-fast, mannered dialogue. (Though Rhimes has developed her own brand of stylized speech on shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice.)

The pilot, in particular, has an almost military level of exposition, as we’re briefed on who the firm is made of, what they do and why they do it. Who are they? Workaholics with issues (“Everyone in this office needs fixing”). What do they do? Use the law to make problems go away.

And why do they do it? For the thrill, but also, kinda, for the right reasons; the setup makes clear, lest any apparent cynicism turn us off, that Olivia refuses to defend a client she believes to be lying. (It’ll be interesting to see how that holds up over many episodes, in this line of work.)

Scandal isn’t a deep show, but it’s bright enough, complicating matters by introducing a running storyline about the President (Tony Goldwyn)–for whom Olivia once worked–and a woman who claims an affair with him. It doesn’t get into the weeds of policy issues but it’s sharp in the language of public controversy and spin. (“Don’t Clinton me with words,” the POTUS’ aide tells him after an obfuscatory answer.) And Washington is an arresting protagonist, all fierce efficiency: the series expects you to believe from the get-go that this former White House aide is the most respected/feared operator in D.C., and Washington sells the proposition with sheer personal magnetism.

The pilot, which does a lot of set-up and is not subtle about doing it, is the weakest of three episodes previewed for critics. But the following episodes, with strong dialogue and casting (including West Wing alum Joshua Malina as a sometimes-rival lawyer and Henry Ian Cusick as Olivia’s lieutenant, a recovering rake), suggest that Scandal can be, if not an absorbing political thriller, at least smart escapism.

That said, I wish it would aim for a little more. ABC is not pay cable, and maybe a show about fixers on network television can’t afford the kind of cheerful amorality of a cable series like Showtime’s dark comedy House of Lies. But Scandal could aim for the level of realism of CBS’s The Good Wife, a different kind of show about lawyers, politics and making problems go away.

The Good Wife is willing to give its audience credit for accepting characters who cut deals and occasionally even cross ethical lines–fixer Eli Gold as well as Will Gardner and even protagonist Alicia–because they work in a rough world. Scandal, at least at the outset, works hard to convince us that its Pope is a saint, that Olivia is a tough, valuable crisis manager in a scandal-ridden capital who somehow only manages to manage the scandals of people who are innocent. Scandal seems like clever fun, and no one needs it to explain the deficit crisis to us. But it would carry a little more dramatic power if it recognized that politics is the art of the compromised.

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