When mixing the professional and personal lives of television characters, one can almost always expect the name Shonda Rhimes to come up in the credits. The two categories are so implicitly merged within her worlds that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
That is part of what so many viewers love about the shows from ShondaLand. It is something that can be found in not just one, not two, but all three of her shows currently on ABC, the newest of which is “Scandal.”
Departing from the medical worlds of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” Rhimes relocates to the political and power hungry landscape of Washington, D.C.
“Scandal” steps inside the crisis-management firm of Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington. It is not a law firm, although the entire team seems to be an amalgam of law degree-holders. They don’t have any legitimate ties to the police nor to the government, yet each team member knows someone, somewhere, well enough to get what they need to do their job.
It’s a team of fixers; they pick someone’s problem and make it go away.
Even if it’s not entirely clear exactly what her firm does, what we do know is that it is good at it. Because we are told. A hundred times. In the first hour of the show.
However, the lack of clarity of the job and the redundancy of the dialogue is relatively forgivable because the characters, in true Rhimes fashion, are gripping with chemistry and banter that makes the show worth watching.
We enter this world through the eyes of Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes), a wide-eyed young lawyer who idolizes Pope. Of the team, Quinn is probably the least interesting, which makes it unclear as to why Pope was so determined to hire her.
Luckily, Lowes does not need to carry the show, for she has a strong ensemble around her. Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond from “Lost”) returns to the television screen as Stephen Finch, one of the lawyers who is not a lawyer. He works alongside Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield) who has been hinted as the token Rhimes character pining after a taken man, in this case Finch.
Pope’s team is finished off with the 28-year-old “not-baby” lawyer, Harrison Wright (Columbus Short), and an ex-CIA hacker named Huck (Guillermo Díaz). Outside of the office is David Rosen (Joshua Malina), a local district attorney who constantly, and humorously, finds himself at odds with Pope’s current clients.
The strength of the show lies in these characters, their work, their undying loyalty to Pope, and their relationships.
And that is also where my problem with the show begins. Because rather than focus on these interesting people and how they came to work together and why they chose this over another career course, “Scandal” instead focuses nearly all of its attention on Olivia’s complicated history with the White House.
Coming from someone who just finished idolizing “The West Wing” for the past several months, it may sound somewhat biased. But the scenes in which Pope barged into the Oval Office or any part of the West Wing for that matter played out as unrealistic and melodramatic.
We enter the high ranks of Washington politics after learning that Pope’s career strength was built as she worked on the campaign for the current President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) alongside now Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry). Pope then suddenly quit her job with the White House and began the firm she currently works with. Her complicated history with the Commander-in-Chief of the United States puts her in the interesting and compelling position of a fixer who needs fixing herself.
Washington does a remarkable job carrying herself with poise, gumption, and strength in every scene inside and outside of the West Wing. Goldwyn as President Grant however, is less believable as the leader of the free world, therefore making me dislike him a little more in every scene.
The fast paced repertoire of the dialogue and the overwhelming presence of the presidential seal make me long for Sorkin and President Bartlet, which is why I far prefer the cases outside of the White House and the characters that are at least an arm’s length away from President Grant.
Washington’s screen presence along with Rhimes’ natural knack for mixing business with pleasure keep me optimistic that “Scandal” will figure out how to balance the two sides of the pendulum. ABC has put together a talented cast with a veteran creator behind it. I would like to see it succeed.
Once Pope’s trusted team is brought in on the secrets she’s hiding, I expect “Scandal” to go from acceptable to addictive.
“Scandal” airs on Thursdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.
Rosenberg is a member of the class of 2012.