‘Scandal’ Imagines Women Who Run DC

“My gut tells me everything I need to know.” You want to believe Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). Certainly, the people around her believe Olivia Pope. A Washington fixer in a TV show created by Shonda Rhimes, Liv is possessed of an especially valuable skill set. And as you watch her at the start of Scandal — whether she’s instructing her team of lawyers and investigators, evaluating a potential client, standing up to a U.S. Attorney or talking her way past a White House guard — she’s so confident, so brilliant, and so heartbreakingly earnest that you understand why everyone calls her The Olivia Pope.

Even before she appears on screen, Liv is daunting. Describing the boss for the requisite newbie, Harrison (Columbus Short) talks fast, perhaps because regular speed speech can’t capture the full daunting-ness of The Olivia Pope. He meets Quinn (Katie Lowes) in a bar, and just as she guesses he’s trying to pick her up, he mentions Olivia’s name, then goes on to explain why Quinn stops breathing at that mention: “It’s best job you’ll ever have. You’ll change lives, you’ll slay dragons,” he says, “Because Olivia Pope is as amazing as they say.” As Quinn continues to gape, he concludes, “I’m a gladiator in a suit because that’s what you are when you work for Olivia, a gladiator in a suit.”

The camera cuts between close-ups of Harrison and Quinn’s faces, the bar-as-background turned into so much colorful blur as he pronounces and she catches her breath. But Harrison’s pitch is not for Quinn, who has, after all, applied for a job with The Olivia Pope and can hardly believe her good fortune to be so selected. Rather, the pitch is for you, so you can get up to speed on the character based on Judy Smith, a PR consultant best known for representing Monica Lewinsky (and who reminds you too of Jodie Foster’s Ms. White in Inside Man).

The pitch also introduces the premise, articulated by Liv a couple of minutes later, that her awesome gut does tell her all she needs to know, and all you need to know too. Delivered to Olivia Pope’s office, Quinn is further awed: Liv has just rescued the Russian ambassador’s kidnapped baby (“Nyet!” she dismisses one bad guy’s effort to obstruct her) and is just now assessing a new case, a U.S. war hero who appears to have killed his girlfriend.

Quinn’s orientation proceeds: “We’re not a law firm, we solve problems, we manage crises,” she hears, and then, when she’s startled to tears by a display of Liv’s calculated cruelty, the office tech Huck (Guillermo Diaz) explains the process: “Olivia Pope fixes things. You need fixing… We all have a story, everyone in this office needs fixing.” As Quinn stares at him, her lip still trembling, Huck turns to leave the ladies’ room where he’s interrupted her burbling. “No crying. We don’t cry, ever.”

Quinn’s as impressed as she’s supposed to be, even as the case of the week is laid out: Sully St. James (Wes Brown) — a pretty boy conservative icon, recent “Sexiest Man Alive,” and aspiring political candidate — arrives wearing bloody clothing and a horrified face. “I didn’t kill her!” he says, jaw magnificently clenched. “She was my best friend!” The case looks impossible, the evidence stacked against him, and yet, Liv insists, her gut tells her he’s innocent. And so she sets her one-from-every-food-group minions to assorted tasks, while the state’s attorney, David (Josh Malina) lurks in the doorway. “Your Spidey senses aren’t evidence,” he observes, so cleverly, before he agrees to give Liv 48 hours to find Sully’s alibi.

As cases of the week tend to be, this one is twisty and turny, occasionally entertaining and not even vaguely convincing. It also serves its primary purpose, which is to introduce the overarching plot, concerning Liv and the man she helped get elected president, Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), along with his perceptive wife Mellie (Bellamy Young) and practical, if not quite so perceptive, chief of staff Cyrus (Jeff Perry). This plot comes in by way of former White House intern Amanda (Liza Weil, terrific here as she was in the 1998 indie film Whatever), who claims she had an affair with the president. Liv’s gut tells her one thing even as the rest of the plot might be telling you something else.

And so Scandal offers up a minor viewer’s dilemma: as indomitable and intimidating as Liv may be, she’s also vulnerable and imperfect, and oh dear, she’s got some secrets of her own.

This won’t be news to anyone who’s seen a Shonda Rhimes show. You know as well that you’ll be asked to absorb a lot of slick montages and melodramatic contrivances, not to mention a preponderance of shallow focus shots and synthy beats. But the formulaic business is at least partly alleviated by a couple of things. First, it’s incredibly helpful that the wondrous Kerry Washington plays Liv, as she makes even the most predictable plot points seem compelling. And second, Scandalis especially keen on how girls — their relationships, their competitiveness and community, their bad choices and their admirable honesty.

Even if these relationships are reduced to fit an episode’s running time, and even if they’re too often built around men (as employers, adversaries, johns, bullies, and lovers, as well as spoiled sons, bad boyfriends, and, surprise! rapists), the women with whom Olivia interacts are consistently engaging. The women who run Washington, the show fantasizes, range from a madam (Mimi Kennedy) to a Supreme Court Justice’s wife (Megan Gallagher) to a top tier CEO (JoBeth Williams). The show’s formula looks to be this: the silly plots swirl, the brokers scheme, and the minions toil, but in each episode, Liv finds a moment to chat with one of these wise, powerful, and inevitably troubled women. In these moments, Scandal is slightly less tabloidy and soapy, and slightly more beguiling.

RATING 6 / 10