Scandal: Soapier Than Expected

Scandal S01E01: "Sweet Baby"

Based on the promos, I sat down to watch Scandal with the same level of excitement people generally reserve for cleaning out their oven. I cannot bear procedurals, imaginary politics bore me, and lawyer shows make my head hurt. So I was not a friendly audience at the start of last night's series premiere. And the first half-hour fit the procedural formula and tone. Consider the opening gambit where Quinn (Katie Lowes) got recruited in a bar to join Olivia Pope's (Kerry Washington) team: SO much banter. The kind of banter that comes from one sharp writer writing two sharp characters who speak with the exact same voice. Crackly. Quinn was swept into the elegant alternative office space of the Olivia Pope crisis center, where beautiful lawyers work ceaselessly to right the wrongs of their clients. Including international baby snatching.

Olivia Pope, peripheral characters explained, is a legend in her own time, despite looking all of 27 years old. She's BFFs with the president, she can manipulate the press, and she's not just a genius lawyer, she looks skinny in a white trench coat. (I defy you to try and look skinny in a white trench.)

These people don’t have to follow the rules! They are gladiators in suits! There are lots of blurry items in front of the camera to give the show a glossy look! Seriously, there is a lot of this show you just can’t see:

My first clue that this was no super clever, detail-oriented series came when Olivia explained how she decides whether or not to take a client and lend the person her unconditional support: She trusts her gut. Not her brain, her gut. That is the bedrock of the show: This group of high-powered lawyers is free of any law or morality save Olivia Pope’s unerring instinct.

Sorry, but trusting your "gut" is terrible reasoning. (And, need I add, lazy writing.) Studies show again and again that even trained professionals can rarely tell when other people are lying. For example, steady eye contact? Not a good indicator. Being steady and calm when denying guilt? Tell-tale sign of a sociopath. In fact, usually people who are telling the truth when accused of something will act a hell of a lot more embarrassed, flustered, and scared than those who know their escape from justice depends on their performance. So when the incredible, vaunted Olivia Pope explained her claim to fame is her spot-on hunches, I got my own hunch not to expect any of the little clues and intricate storytelling of say, Sherlock Holmes the UK series.

The conceit that taking on problematic clients and breaking the law to protect them is based on woman’s intuition seemed like story spackle, but even thickest industrial-strength hole-filler couldn't prevent the full-scale disintegration that ensued as the episode spun off its procedural track and just started following Olivia around. She forced a colleague to pick from an exquisite array of about 12 diamond engagement rings and also checked in with a hunky president at Martha's Vineyard.

The president needed Pope back on his team! If not, could she at least take care of a pesky Monica Lewinsky-type underling who was claiming they were LOVAHS? Of course she could.

Well, actually she couldn't. Sure, Pope threatened the girl while she was walking her dog and then, natch, the girl almost killed herself. And in the hospital revealed to Pope that the president called her "sweet baby." With this revelation, the last vestige of professionalism drained from Pope's persona and the world of the show spun into Dynasty territory.

I mean, a steamy makeout session between Pope and the president in the OVAL OFFICE!?! It was at that moment that my pen and paper slid to the floor and I realized I did not need to take any more notes. Scandal got into the TV party by claiming to be a legal procedural with upper notes of The West Wing. But in the third act, it dissolved into the most steamy, indulgent drama I've seen since Revenge. That is not a complaint! Pope's tête-á-tête with the president was kind of intense and made my knees weak. Sure, she looked like an idiot for trusting him, and the president character is definitely a skeeze—but the actor (Tony Goldwyn) is charismatic, and Kerry Washington is brilliant enough that I'd tune in again next week in hopes of another illicit conversation between these two.

Which is practically guaranteed, since the episode closed with Pope telling presidential handler Mr. Kramitiski that she is taking on the jilted aide as a client. Nice!

Also nice: The episode went out of its way to explain that Scandal is not going to follow every client’s story to its full conclusion. Whoever actually killed the attractive dead girl earlier: NOT OUR PROBLEM. And the blood-spattered war hero who wandered into Pope's office after the police seemed about to charge him with the girl’s murder? His case was settled by Pope talking to him about who he should love. (And, also, his alibi was easily established by security camera footage of him kissing his boyfriend in full view of a security camera. That’s right, a nationally known, fiercely closeted conservative war hero who would rather be arrested for murder than come out made out with his boyfriend on a street corner. RIGHT. With cases this easy, it's no wonder Pope spends most of her time matchmaking.)

Maybe future episodes will drift out of the soap world and back into the procedural, but considering how ham-fistedly the writers handled the first real case, I don't think that side of it is their focus. I look forward this seeing Scandal become a presidential telenovela. Shonda, please deliver!


– What did you think of the premiere?

– Will you watch Episode 2?

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