While Shonda Rhimes’ dramas seldom traffic in understatement, the “Grey’s Anatomy” creator has traded a scalpel for a meat cleaver in “Scandal,” which with its Washington, D.C. setting, exaggerated situations and overblown politics, feels like “?’The West Wing’ for Dummies.” As usual, Rhimes’ workplace characters talk very fast, but the manic visual style can’t obscure a series flawed on most every level: The plot twists are predictable, when not ridiculous; the moralizing is heavy-handed; and star Kerry Washington — while beautiful — suffers from a serious gravitas deficit, in a show that too frequently lurches toward camp.
If only “Scandal” merited its prominent post-“Grey’s” placement. Instead, its seven-episode spring tryout looks like TV nepotism of the highest order.
Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, is spoken of in hushed, reverent terms by employees, who make clear her company isn’t a law firm; rather, they “manage crises,” “solve problems” and “save reputations.” Sounds a little like crisis PR meets the Justice League of America.
If that’s confusing, the show tries to make life simpler by employing a “Law & Order” approach, ripping most of its cases from the headlines — including a D.C. madam, a Monica Lewinsky-type who claims to have slept with the President of the United States (Tony Goldwyn), and a crashed plane where the flight crew might have been drinking.
Beyond the episodic elements, there’s a larger, serialized story running through all the episodes, one that ties into Olivia’s past working for the President and serving as a protege of his chief of staff, Cyrus (Jeff Perry, one of several “Grey’s” alums on hand, and easily the best reason to watch the series).
“My gut tells me everything I need to know,” Olivia says early on. But the more time viewers spend with her, the less trustworthy her judgment becomes. Her minions, meanwhile, are glib and diverse — the most prominent being “Lost’s” Henry Ian Cusick — working nonstop and having no appreciable lives, while occupying an office that’s less corporate domicile than a better-lit version of the Batcave.
All of this is introduced through the eyes of a new hire, Quinn (Katie Lowes), but the best moments come from outside Olivia’s office, including Perry and Joshua Malina as a droll D.A. who keeps clashing with her. Unfortunately, most of his scenes are opposite Washington, who — even when shot in adoring slow motion, as she occasionally is — proves unconvincing as the peerless power-broker her co-workers describe. (Judy Smith, a former White House aide who once oversaw PR at NBC, serves as a producer on and inspiration for the series.)
“Scandal” does become a bit more interesting toward the end of the seven episodes ABC made available, but as much out of curiosity — and where its political caricatures will lead — as merit.
Having stuck close to medicine since “Grey’s” with spinoff “Private Practice” and the short-lived “Off the Map,” Rhimes also brings a cudgel to politics likely to antagonize conservatives. Then again, “Scandal” is too campy to be taken too seriously, and enjoyment likely hinges on engaging the material on those terms.
Stranger things have happened, including ABC now having introduced a series that actually makes another one of its new serials, “Revenge,” look plausible by comparison. Even so, a few more shows this silly, and somebody’s going to really need to save reputations.