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TV Watch: "Scandal"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: April 5, 2012

The latest show from Shonda Rhimes is preposterous. I mean, how-nutty-is-that-plot preposterous. By the end of the second episode, I had lost count of how many times I had muttered "well, that could never happen" or "no one would do that." But that's Rhimes. "Grey's Anatomy" has had plenty of similar no-way moments over the years, as has her "Private Practice." The difference between the two is that "Grey's" still found a way -- well; some of the time -- to make you care about the characters enough that you kept turning the TV pages, or hoping that whatever absurdity had overtaken  the show would pass. At its worst, and "PP" and "Off the Map" come  to mind all too often, you either stop caring or never start, and the flaws are all the more glariing.

So where does that leave "Scandal"?I don't know.  Aside from the main charracter Olivia Pope, I don't have many strong feelings. And I give Kerry Washington mega-credit for making Pope so interesting; another actress might have tried to signal lovability when Washington is more than willing to indicate that this is an unpleasant, even chilly woman, and that's what makes her so good at dampening scandals for her clients. She doesn't care if you like her; that's not her job. She needs you to like or respect or even ignore her client -- whatever it takes to make the problems go away, She is Cristiina Yang with a better understanding of people (aside, perhaps, from herself).

Pope used to work in the White House, under the current president (Tony Goldwyn), but left for reasons that will become clear in tonight's episode. She remains well-connected to the administration, and with DC society generally, so she gets a lot of work from the high-profile and high-powered when they are in trouble. As you would expect, she has a team (including, among others, Henry Ian Cusick of "Lost") and wide-eyed new employee who helps intoduce the characters but is often a waste of air time. She moves nonstop, including at times when business could just as easily be done via phone, and keeps her staff moving with similar haste.

Everyone speaks quickly and with reduindanciesl; Rhimes is a fan of Aaron Sorkin's work and you can hear his rhythms here. In fact, when Joshua Malina showed up in an episode, I was happy because Malina speaks Sorkin. But the stories are not as strong when you stop letting them pull you along with their pace. And there are twists here which, again, make me just think "no way." Sorkin may have drifted into fantasy, but there was still a sense of real politics; when "Scandal" tries to be deeper than a headline, it becomes less and less believable.

On the other hand, there is Washington, almost all fire and forcefulness, and so making her occasional shows of vulnerability more effective. And an energetic pulpiness to the whole thing that, after two episodes, had me wondering what lunacy awaited in the third.


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