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TV Review: Scandal, or the Show As Bag of Potato Chips

SCANDAL - In the series premiere, "Sweet Baby," young lawyer Quinn Perkins is offered a job with the crisis management firm Olivia Pope and Associates. Quinn is in awe. Olivia Pope is the former communications director to the President. She and her team of "gladiators in suites" will do whatever it takes to make their clients' problems go away, and newbie Quinn is initiated into the group with trial by fire on day one. Olivia's former boss, President Fitzgerald Grant and his chief of staff, Cyrus Beene are never far from her beat - and when a White House intern accuses the President of having an affair, Olivia is the only one they trust to diffuse the problem. But the news hits close to home for Olivia, and Quinn soon realizes Olivia's clients aren't the only ones with secrets. "Scandal" premieres THURSDAY, APRIL 5 (10:02-11:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/DANNY FELD)
HENRY IAN CUSICK, KERRY WASHINGTON

Warning: The following review of Scandal, which debuted last night on ABC, contains pretty much nothing but spoilers.

How crazy is Scandal? So crazy that I didn't want to review it in advance because the thought of treading lightly around its deliriously stupid/brilliant plot twists was depressing. You don't watch a show like this because it's a delicately imagined drama whose ins-and-outs need to be protected; you watch it because it's so enthusiastically crappy that it circles 'round the bend and somehow becomes audacious. It's the new Revenge, but so much goofier and more shameless that it makes Revenge look comparatively measured.

Created by Shonda Rhimes (Gray's Anatomy), this drama about a high-powered Washington PR wiz named Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is mainly concerned with topping itself from scene to scene. It's a singularly loopy watercooler series, the kind that makes you sort of half-skip toward whoever you know is watching it and blurt out, "Oh my God, seriously? Did you see that? What was better? The scene where we find out the war hero Marine and right-wing icon wrongly accused of killing his wife has an alibi but doesn't want to use it because then the world would know he was secretly gay, or the scene where Olivia realizes the president really is having an affair because he calls the girl the same pet name that he used to call Olivia?"

The show's distinctively Rhimesian dialogue — which packs two hours' worth of exposition-laden dialogue into a one-hour time slot by HavingEverybodyDeliverTheirLinesSuperSuperSuperFastLikeAnAuctioneerSOLD!!!! and talk over each other constantly — prompted the New York Times' TV critic to spend a few hundred words comparing it to The West Wing, which, trust me, the show absolutely, positively isn't trying to be.

What it's trying to be is more of an unholy fusion of House of Lies and 24, only built around a team of problem-solvers ("Gladiators in suits," one character insists on calling them, for no good reason). I don't really know what they do, honestly. That opening scene wherein audience surrogate/heroine Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes) gets sneakily interviewed by one of Olivia's employees, Columbus Short (Harrison Wright), makes it sound as though she's being recruited to be a part of the CSI team, or maybe the Avengers. They don't have an office, they have headquarters. They work together in one of those high-ceilinged rooms with cool lighting fixtures that CBS's various, mostly indistinguishable procedurals always seem to be set in. There's even a wall-o'-windows that looks on first glance rather like a gigantic vertical light table.

The right-wing poster-boy Marine stumbles into the office to ask for their help in his defense against the murder charge, as if they're a team of Mike Hammers who've hung out their shingle in a seedy two-room office above a dive bar. There really needs to be a buzzing neon sign outside Olivia's office window with one of the letters missing, and a corny voice-over narration by Olivia. ("He threw me a look, and I caught it my hip pocket.") That and an invisible jet plane on the roof with vertical takeoff and landing capability: How else can you explain Olivia's ability to get to wherever she needs to be within, it seems, minutes of needing to be there? Kerry Washington's a type-A icon, a poster gal for borderline-OCD people who are happiest barking out orders to underlings. I don't know which I like better, her I-can-burn-holes-in-your-forehead stare or her amazing ability to run in four-inch heels as if she's dancing barefoot through a field of daisies. The magnetically handsome yet still faintly Boris Karloffian Tony Goldwyn is perfectly cast as Olivia's ex-paramour, the Chief Executive. Who can make this super-achieving woman feel like a jilted middle schooler again? Only the most powerful man in the world.

If you thought the premiere was off-the-charts silly, wait till you see next week's episode, which establishes beyond a doubt that this isn't just a case-of-the-week show, but an adventure in nuttiness, a dark-night-of-the-soul melodrama written and paced like a David E. Kelley wacky lawyer series. In its heart, it's about a seemingly super-controlled character, Olivia, whose every move is secretly dictated by her need to conquer private traumas. I'm tempted to argue that Olivia's entire world, including its assorted supporting players, are mere projections of Olivia's personality. It would certainly explain why none of them seem to have personalities; if they weren't of different ages, nationalities, and ethnicities, it would be difficult to tell them apart, at least until they start revealing that they have personal problems, such as the Henry Ian Cusick character's inability to commit to the woman he wants to marry, a subplot that gives Olivia a chance to do that "I know you better than you know yourself" thing that certain powerful people do because they like to feel wizardly.

But to intuit some sort of pop-Freudian world-projection thing would be to give the series too much credit for aesthetic daring. It's not another American Horror Story (though wow, wouldn't it be awesome if it were?). It's a Shonda Rhimes show, but bulked up. It's got a preadolescent's sense of storytelling momentum; every scene is leading to the next "and then ... " revelation. "And then it turns out the war hero Marine and right-wing poster boy is secretly having sex with men! And then we find out Olivia didn't just used to run the president's campaign, she used to be the president's girlfriend! And she's still in love with him! And then ... " It's the TV show as bag of potato chips. Betcha can't eat just one.

Photo: Danny Feld/© 2011 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.