Notorious Is No Substitute for Scandal

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Photo: Eli Joshua Ade/ABC

Notorious is a mediocre-at-best prime-time soap dressed in Shondaland clothing.

No, Shonda Rhimes is not responsible for this new ABC series, debuting at 9 p.m. on Thursday. Josh Berman, who previously created Drop Dead Diva, and Allie Hagan, the former lobbyist and blogger responsible for Suri’s Burn Book, masterminded this desperate-to-be-provocative drama, which is based loosely — hopefully very loosely — on the real-life, mutually beneficial relationship between celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos and former Larry King Live producer Wendy Walker.

Because Notorious is being dropped smack in the middle of Shonda Night, in the time slot vacated by Scandal while it’s on hiatus, it’s possible some viewers may understandably mistake it for a Shonda show. It’s got similar ingredients: high-heeled power players in pencil skirts; lots of sex; unexpected twists that lead to additional unexpected twists; low-simmering romantic tension between its two principals, Piper Perabo and Daniel Sunjata; and a healthy dusting of betrayal. There’s even a subplot in the first episode — which primarily focuses on a hit-and-run case involving the founder of a “prominent microblogging site” who “grew up poor in East Palo Alto” — in which a councilman running for office seeks help from Sunjata’s law firm when an incriminating old Halloween photo threatens to resurface. Which, yes, sounds like something straight out of Scandal.

But Notorious is not Scandal, or anything other than a standard mind-numbing adult thriller in which the worlds of broadcast journalism and high-priced legal representation intersect in ways that should make viewers profoundly uncomfortable, but will probably just make them shrug and go, “Yep. That’s how it works.” (Please know, America, that what you see on this show is not how it works for most of us who work in the news business.)

Perabo plays Julia George, the producer of Louise Herrick Live, a cable program whose host (Kate Jennings Grant) spends most of her preshow prep time dressed in lingerie and lounging around with her much younger boyfriend. She can afford to, apparently, since most of the content for her show stems from Julia’s relationship with mega-lawyer Jake Gregorian (Sunjata). Julia uses him to get exclusive stories on the air, occasionally ambushing him in the process, and he uses her to paint his clients in the most non-incriminating possible light, occasionally blindsiding her in the process. They aren’t lovers, but they banter with each other — Julia: “You’re impossible.” Jake: “Oh, I am so possible.” — in a way that suggests they probably will be eventually.

With every passing minute of this pilot, more plot and more characters are piled on until Notorious basically gets crushed underneath the weight of them all. There’s Ryan (Ryan Guzman), Julia’s new production assistant who happens to be the son of the network head and is already eager, like everyone in this series, to shred his ethics like confetti to get ahead. There’s Megan (Sepideh Moafi), Julia’s assistant, whose primary function thus far is to share unsavory news about Julia's boyfriend. There’s Bradley (J. August Richards), Jake’s law partner and brother who seems destined to act as his sibling’s conscience and, probably at least once an episode, ask him what’s wrong. And there’s Ella (Aimee Teegarden), an underling at the law firm who may wind up getting involved with Ryan, but who desperately needs to be swept away from all this by Matt Saracen because, dammit, Julie Taylor deserves better than this show.

As silly and contrived as Notorious is, it might have worked as an end-of-the-work-week guilty pleasure if it were more fun, or more willing to wink at its own absurdity, or more something. Instead, it takes all of its poorly written media and/or legal manipulations so seriously that the only way to respond is with an eye roll and a yawn. On more than one occasion, the people in Julia’s orbit remind her that “the show” — meaning LHL — always comes first. It’s hard to imagine any viewer having the same feelings of loyalty toward Notorious.