It’s been 30 years since a black woman had a leading role on a network television show, and it’s a relief to see that Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, brings the idea of an African-American female lead back to the forefront with style and substance. Admirably enough, the pilot never once mentions the race of its lead; like her white counterparts throughout most of mainstream television, Kerry Washington’s skin color is treated as a matter-of-fact default that isn’t given a second thought by the protagonist or her supporting characters. More urgent and entertaining are her emotional and intellectual attributes; Washington commands the screen as a character of compelling strength, brilliance, articulation and heartbreaking vulnerability. And given the roller-coaster script and crackling supporting cast to back Washington up, there’s no reason this show shouldn’t be a hit.
Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope, a crisis manager who protects the elite from scandalous secrets that could destroy their careers or reputations. Her crack team of lawyers act as a law firm that’s “not a law firm”–a group that litigates, investigates, and intimidates their way toward solutions for their clients. Olivia’s intricate network of legal and political connections affords her and her team the resources to handle high-stakes situations. In the pilot episode, Pope’s main client is a decorated military vet whose girlfriend has been killed, and–although his fingerprints are on the gun, and his motive highly plausible–Olivia trusts her (never-wrong) gut and tries to find a solution for him. At the same time, Olivia is drawn into doing a favor for the President that eventually illuminates a complicated history between the two characters. Both plot lines pick up steam and drop bombs with serious emotional impact toward their resolutions–both on the characters and on the audience.
The pilot, while a little muddied by its overly-choreographed dialogue, is a largely excellent start to a new series. The episode has enough surprising turns to keep viewers guessing, and surprisingly lays the groundwork for a more serialized story than the usual procedural shows leave room for. It’s clear that Kerry Washington and her more-than-capable cast have only scratched the surface of their own potential, and the writing has likewise established that there are layers and layers of entertainment to be mined from the story. There’s no telling whether this show will be as successful as Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy just yet, but the pilot has given quite a few reasons to be optimistic.