When Scandal premiered last season, I was not a fan: It wasn’t quite emotional enough to be a soap, but it was a little too loosey-goosey to work as a procedural. But fifteen episodes later, I am so happy to have been wrong. Scandal, I love you.
Kerry Washington stars as Olivia Pope, a D.C. “fixer” with a Scooby gang of devoted helpers and an ex-boyfriend who’s the (married) president of the United States. She helps dignitaries cover up unsavory aspects of their lives, or creates the public relations campaign to come clean about them. Mostly, though, she gives impassioned speeches. And lo, they are melodramatic and wondrous. Shonda Rhimes created the series, so it has the Grey’s-style dialogue that combines major emotional disclosures with comfy chit-chat, plus Rhimes’s signature ear for the subtle differences of how we talk to people we know really well. There’s the BFF patter, the new boyfriend pillow talk, the ex-boyfriend play-it-cool banter — all slightly different, and all present in pretty much every episode.
Scandal has its issues. There’s the truly grating visual style in which many scenes appear to be filmed through a prism. It would be great if Guillermo Diaz ever changed facial expressions. The evil VP is laughably evil, and the cheated-on First Lady is so scheming it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for her. Much of the show is patently ridiculous. And there’s more than a little Joey Potterism going on, in the sense that characters constantly use Olivia’s whole name. (Every time someone says “Olivia Pope,” drink.) But Scandal casts Gilmore Girls alums, so I can’t stay mad for long. Paris! Lane! I missed you guys. (And now I miss them again, since both their Scandal characters have since died.)
Despite those weaknesses, though, Scandal has really hit its stride in the last few weeks. (Like with “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” one of the best drama episodes of the year.) Someone shot the president! That someone looked like it was Huck, an ex-spy and one of Olivia’s lackeys! It turned out to be Huck’s girlfriend! We got flashbacks to the bittersweet romantic backstory for Olivia and President Grant set against the barreling narrative of an assassination attempt. If it sounds like West Wing a little, that’s probably not a mistake, though generally Scandal does not resemble the Barlett administration. For starters, Scandal’s President Grant is not a great guy, and it doesn’t always seem like he’s trying to be one, either. Scandal is soapy and casual, packed with romance and blackmail and surprising sexual encounters.
And where WW had plenty of episodes that were about political minutiae and only a few about our heroes lives being in peril, on Scandal every episode is set up to be High Stakes. Quinn, the newbie lawyer with a dark past (and shocking lack of eyebrows), needs the team’s help when she comes home and finds her journalist boyfriend has been stabbed in the neck. Multiple characters have crazy walls, where they map out their theories. People spend a lot of time around murderers. Everything is potentially catastrophic, everyone has had his or her life threatened, everyone has a billion dark secrets and enemies in high places. There might as well be a blinking sign that says “crisis!” That’s why this assassination arc has been so successful: It’s a crisis on top of a crisis, and that’s what Scandal seems to do best. Well, that and having two characters get so damn frustrated with each other that they just have to kiss and kiss and kiss until all that frustration has worked itself out. That happens a lot, too.