Spring has sprung, and with it comes more than a dozen TV series premieres. Perhaps the buzziest of the bunch arrives this week, from the pen of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice creator Shonda Rhimes and revolving around a doctor — of spin. Our review:
THE SHOW | ABC’s Scandal, premiering Thursday, April 5 at 10/9c (watch the first seven minutes here)
THE COMPETITION | CBS’ The Mentalist, NBC’s Awake, Bravo’s Kathy Griffin-hosted talk show (premiering April 19)
THE CAST | Kerry Washington (Ray), Tony Goldwyn (Ghost), Jeff Perry (Grey’s Anatomy), Henry Ian Cusick (Lost), Joshua Malina (West Wing), Darby Stanchfield (NCIS), Guillermo Diaz, Columbus Short, Katie Lowes
THE SET-UP | Washington stars as Olivia Pope, an elite crisis management consultant inspired in part by Judy Smith, a former White House press aide and onetime Monica Lewinsky spokesperson. With her Oval Office servitude behind her, Olivia now lords over a team of lawyers, investigators and snoops that leaps into action to help D.C. elite dodge publicity bullets both large and larger. Goldwyn plays the President of the United States with whom Olivia used to work quite closely, Perry his protective chief of staff. That complex past association is rekindled in the pilot when a young woman claims to have had an affair with the married POTUS, and Olivia is enlisted to shut the lass down.
THE PROS | Ever since The West Wing, I’ve been drawn to D.C.-based fiction — from The American President to Dave to even the Alex Cross novels and Murder at 1600 — and the sleek, sexy and shamelessly juicy Scandal scratches that itch. And while what went down with Lewinsky is long behind us, Scandal serves up a fresh spin on that saga, by giving Olivia and the “whistleblower” more than a little in common. Early episodes also exploit the exploits of a D.C. madam, a spoiled rich boy accused of rape and a military hero who looks good for murder (lest he part with a damning alibi). Yet all the while, the White House storyline simmers, boils and then outright boils over, as the president’s alleged fling gives Olivia & Co. reasons to alternately champion her and chuck her. If there’s ever a tawdry twist to heap on, this show isn’t at all shy to do it.
The cast, despite some underwritten roles (see below), is solid, led by Washington in a role that pops (and not just because Olivia wears the hell out of a white pantsuit). Perry in particular quickly dismissed the prejudice I held against his loathsome Grey’s dad by delivering an engaging take on the all-too-familiar role of the commander-in-chief’s consigliere, one who is not without his own secrets; a 2-1/2 minute monologue he lets loose with in Episode 4 alone will make you a fan. Fun fact: After experimenting in the original pilot with an “American” Henry Ian Cusick, the show has since restored his accent.
THE CONS | While Olivia is painted vividly (and often) as a leader of “gladiators in suits” who is “not one of the good guys” but “the best guy,” it’ll be several episodes before you learn anything about any of her minions. (But when the time comes, it’s an eye-opening info dump as the associates’ dicey dossiers are reviewed by a rival. You see, their boss likes to fix “broken” people.) Olivia’s unabashedly titillating POTUS connection too often makes it seems like Goldwyn’s leader of the free world is too focused on his love life. Rhimes’ writing, as familiar as ever, being rife as it is with repeated mantras of empowerment, occasionally runs the risk of making Olivia’s greenest hire (played by Lowes) sound like one of the Grey gals. The lengths to which the script goes to puff up Pope’s chest — at one point, she verbally dresses down a dictator likened to Castro! — can be a bit much.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE | With CBS rumored to be pondering Thursday tinkering of its own come fall — The Mentalist to Fridays? To make room for Person of Interest at 10 o’clock? — a provocative and at-times over-the-top drama such as Scandal would seem poised to crane some necks. If Private Practice can outperform bubble show Body of Proof as it moves to Tuesdays starting April 17, ABC could have a win-win.