Pilot Watch – 'Scandal'

 ‘I’m not a baby lawyer. I’m a gladiator in a suit.’

Scandal charts the personal and professional dealings of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and her team of crisis managers. Professional ‘fixers’, Pope and her team are the people you want to solve your problems, despite the fact they’re incapable of solving their own.

The pilot, ‘Sweet Baby’, introduces us to Pope and co. via the firm’s newest recruit, Quinn (Katie Lowes). An eager young lawyer, she hero worships her new boss. To a lesser extent, this reverence is shared with her colleague Harrison (Columbus Short), a smooth-talking litigator responsible for the ‘gladiator in a suit’ spiel.

The rest of the team is comprised of computer hacker Huck, a former CIA agent with a straightforward attitude (Guillermo Diaz), defence attorney Stephen (Henry Cusick, i.e. Desmond from Lost), and investigator Abby (Darby Stanchfield). Confident in his professional dealings, Stephen is shown to be indecisive in his personal ones. He shares an interesting dynamic with Oliva, turning to her for advice about his personal life. It’s Olivia who convinces him to propose to his girlfriend, a decision he could not reach on his own.

Of the Associates, Abby is the most memorable of the episode. Her unsympathetic approach to the people her work involves provides Sweet Baby with some of its more humorous moments, from her excited and gleeful discovery about a dead woman – ‘Paige is a whore!’ – to blackmailing a cop,

‘ Abby: How’s your wife, Wally? She’s, what, six months pregnant? Does she know about the stripper?
Wally: You’re a real b****, you know that?
Abby: [smiling] I do know that, Wally.’

From the moment Olivia is introduced it is clear she is the star, both of the firm and of the series, and Washington excels in the role. A confident and skilled negotiator, Olivia has only one rule for her clients – no lies. Her deference for lying is enforced across the episode. In fact, Olivia is like a human lie detector, although  this skill is shown to be affected when she becomes emotionally compromised . The pilot successfully communicates this complicated, three dimensional character.

In Sweet Baby, Olivia Pope and Associates are involved in three cases. The first is a generic plot involving the kidnapping of a baby.  The case really just exists to introduce us to Olivia and is subsequently wrapped up within a few early scenes. The second case explains what Oliva and co. actually do, as they take on a client suspected of murdering his fiancé. As the episode progresses the case takes some interesting and unexpected turns.

Sweet Baby’s final case is more personal. Olivia is brought in to ‘fix’ the problems of the President (and former boss) who is being accused of sleeping with a young female White House employee (the Clinton/Lewinksy affair earns a mention). This case acts as Quinn’s trial-by-fire, allowing Olivia (and us) to gage her abilities and potential as a ‘fixer’.

From the first meeting between Quinn and Harrison to Sweet Baby’s close, one thing is very clear – this is a Shonda Rhimes production. The tropes Rhimes established with Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice (and even the short-lived Off The Map) are all present in Scandal. The most significant of these tropes are the character speeches and the personal and professional dramas of the characters’ occurring simultaneously.  Sometimes these signatures work – e.g. Olivia and Stephen’s case discussions mingle with talk of Stephen’s engagement  – while other times it can just feel annoying, and make the characters’ appear overly smug – e.g. Harrison’s speech about the firm (including gladiators) to Quinn.

In the attempt to provide Scandal with a signature style, the director employs what I can only describe as a flash-cut technique, as the screen transitions from photograph to photograph, while characters reveal details about the client and the accompanying case. It’s an annoying and distracting technique that would best be abandoned.

For me, the best scenes in Grey’s Anatomy (in the early years, when Izzy was a likable character) focussed on the characters and their relationships with each other. This is something Sweet Baby also does well. There’s a real camaraderie between Olivia and her associates, allowing for some nice character interactions to emerge, i.e. Olivia giving Stephen a selection of engagement rings to choose from as she convinces him (the first time) to propose to his girlfriend.

When Harrison gives his ‘gladiators in suits’ speech at the beginning of the episode it comes across as pretentious and over the top. But, when the term is repeated by Quinn towards the episode’s close it takes on new meaning. Likewise, Scandal gets better as the first episode progresses, and has the potential to develop into addictive viewing.

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