Shonda Rhimes is known for creating lady-centric shows Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice. But while her new series, Scandal, which premiered last night, has a woman (Kerry Washington) in the lead role, it doesn't feel like a show just for chicks. Quick-paced, with Sorkin-esque rapid-fire dialog, smash cuts, tight shots and dynamic camera movements that make you feel like you're eavesdropping or engaging in surveillance on these characters, it's not about soapy navel-gazing as much as it is procedural with a twist. CSI: DC, with more money, power, and high heels. Part murder mystery, part political intrigue, this first episode was a whirlwind of tension and subtext.
Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope, the head of a crisis management firm who is a big behind-the-scenes muckety-muck in DC and used to work for the President (played by Tony Goldwyn). Olivia Pope fixes things. Situations, people. In the scene above, the President has asked her to deal with a woman who claims to have slept with him; he says she's a liar who's trying to bring him down. Pope is ruthless and unblinking in her goal — to make the woman disappear — but all we really know about Pope is her determination. There's a very different vibe compared to Grey's ; no voice-over, no internal monologue, no hand-wringing or self-doubt. Just the fierce wall of indomitability that is Olivia Pope. By the end of the premiere, her polished, rigid veneer begins to crack… But only slightly. (As one viewer tweeted, "I want to see [Revenge's] Victoria Greyson fight Olivia Pope.") Mostly, the show is about the work. the case. And Rhimes has thrown in all kinds of ripped-from-the-headlines scenarios: This first episode had touches of Don't Ask Don't Tell and Monica Lewinsky; next week's case involves a madam with a VIP client list.
Scandal is the first dramatic network television series written and produced by an African-American woman for an African-American woman in the lead role. The show is also only the fourth hour-long primetime drama with a black woman in the lead role. The first was 1974's Get Christie Love, starring Teresa Graves. The second and third were TNT's HawthoRNe, produced by and starring Jada Pinkett Smith and HBO's The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, starring Jill Scott. (Since those shows were both on cable, Kerry Washington is basically the first black woman to star in a network primetime drama since 1974.) It's no coincidence that Scandal is airing at a time when we actually have black people in the White House — Olivia Pope is partially based on a real person, former White House press aide Judy Smith, who worked closely with Rhimes in creating the show.
The first episode of Scandal was not perfect. It was a little over-the-top, a little sound-bitey. But parts of it were riveting, thrilling and intriguing, especially when you acknowledge that it's based in truth. Considering the kind of condescending stuff the networks think women want to watch — Whitney, 2 Broke Girls — Scandal feels mature, current, intelligent, appropriate. It definitely deserves a chance to grow and evolve, since episode one is all about setting things up. But the pace and the characters are compelling, and since it's an election year, Scandal reminds us how corrupt and shady our nation's capital can be. As Shonda Rhimes tells The Hollywood Reporter:
Times and leaders change but scandals stay the same.