I’ve eagerly anticipated the series premiere of Scandal, Shonda Rhimes’s new foray into DC politics and the people who manage political personalities (and their many issues) behind the scenes. Led by Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope—a legendary game changer with connections all the way to White House leadership—a lawyer-heavy, fast-talking team of People Who Excel have become a kind of Leverage-like problem solvers. (It’s just that these problems and situations don’t require nearly as many rappel lines or night vision goggles.) I was curious to see what kind of woman Rhimes would create to unravel the misdeeds of political figures, since she’s given us other strong-minded, independent women of color in Cristina Yang and Callie Torres on Grey’s Anatomy. And with one huge, gaping caveat, I wasn’t disappointed in the first episode. Spoilers from here on out, folks.
We’re first treated to a conversation in a luxe cocktail bar that could have been directed by Aaron Sorkin himself, for all of its quick-draw banter. The characters are drawn just as fast, as if by the blade of a fencer’s foil. Accomplished, well dressed professional and cautious ingenue who tries to lead with sass but leaves too many vulnerabilities exposed—it’s only a matter of time before the slightly old attorney (he marks himself as 28) draws the best card from his deck and ends her departure. “I work for Olivia Pope.”
“Olivia Pope?” She is thunderstruck, glued to the floor. She repeats Olivia’s name like the third time will summon the woman (or Beetlejuice). Yes, she’d put in a résumé months and months earlier, to work for Pope. And here is the job offer that he knows already she’ll accept.
The rest of the team of fixers and handlers sounds familiar: handsome, nearing-middle-age man who has commitment issues; self-described “bitch” attorney who gets things done despite what anyone may think of her in the process (and who does channel more than a bit of the Bree Van de Kamp); dark and stormy IT guy of color who is prone to streetwear; aforementioned slick African American handsome male attorney who will probably eventually get a storyline about being upper class and black in DC; brand new entry-level ambitious female attorney who will wind up serving as a foil (sorry for the second foil reference in this post) to Olivia; and Pope herself, who is as well dressed as Patty Hewes in Damages and just as well connected as the Oval Office’s phone line.
Pope’s insistence on working for herself (certainly not for the President) at first seems like an example of her strength of purpose, but as we see before the end of the first episode, it’s also about her getting distance from the leader of the free world, with whom she’d had an affair of some unmentioned duration. (I really just can’t get my mind around kissing the guy who killed Patrick Swayze in Ghost, but maybe that’s just me.) And I wonder if naming him President Grant is a dig at his credibility, since the real eighteenth President was a known alcoholic.
Rhimes’s series (Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice) often revolve around sticky ethical situations, and true to form, this series embarks on a short and long story arc around ethical practices and politics. Should a closeted gay man who has made his reputation on anti-gay policy and conservatism come out of the closet to assert his innocence in a murder case? (That’s a no-brainer to me, but neocons may have a different response.) If Patty’s—I mean, Olivia’s—team is always on the side of their client, aren’t they sometimes working on the “wrong” side? Harrison Wright (played by Columbus Short), the 28-year-old attorney on Pope’s team tells newbie Quinn (played by Katie Lowes) that they are “Gladiators in suits.” I thought Gladiators fought for the entertainment of the Emperor, but what do I know?
When Pope, after running an errand from the President in which she intimidates another woman who has begun telling people about her own affair with Mr. Grant, begins to doubt her own “gut,” she spirals into dismay that her actions may have pushed the poor woman to attempt suicide. Olivia shows us near the end of the first hour that she’s complicated person—she may have mad skills with controlling a situation and reading people in general, but she’s got her vulnerabilities even if they aren’t apparent very often. Inspired by the real life Judy Smith who was a deputy White House press secretary, Scandal looks poised to become an interesting, nuanced show about the large gray area that is Washington politics, if it can stop trying so hard to wow audiences. I want to know more about this Olivia Pope. Olivia Pope. Olivia Pope.