Shonda Rhimes, the TV mastermind behind Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, has done it again. The "it" in that sentence being creating another shiny and potentially addictive prime time soap that is far from realistic, but is deliciously entertaining anyway.
With Scandal, Shonda has taken her patented formula out of the hospital and into DC, the home of America's juiciest, most world-altering dramas. Life and death are no longer on the line, but entire political careers are.
Are you ready for this exciting new adventure in Shondaland? Because we sure are. Read on for Wetpaint Entertainment's recap of Scandal Season 1, Episode 1: "Sweet Baby."
We open in DC. A harried young brunette — Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes) — rushes into a crowded restaurant, intent on telling her blind date, Harrison Wright (Columbus Short), that she can't actually stay. But wait: It's not a date at all! Harrison explains in rapid-fire dialogue that he's actually there to interview her for a job. Except it's not really an interview. More of an offer. And not just any offer. It's the offer. To work with the Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), which makes Quinn go literally slack-jawed. If she says yes, she can be “a gladiator in a suit,” whatever that means. Will she take it? Of course! Why? Because she wants to be a gladiator in a suit.
Aaand, scene. Wow. That was a lot of very fast talking. Shonda should be wary of keeping that up — speedy dialogue in a DC setting is a little too reminiscent of The West Wing, and that's not really a comparison you want people to draw.
So, anyway, who's this Olivia Pope person, and what's so great about her? Well, as we learn in the next scene, she's a sharp-dressed woman with the uncanny ability to talk armed Ukrainian mob members into fleeing the country with only half the money they were promised — and she manages to badger her employee about getting engaged at the same time. Yeah. It's still not entirely clear what her job description is, but the gladiator metaphor is starting to make some sense.
Quinn is escorted into Olivia Pope and Associates headquarters, where we're swiftly introduced to our cast of characters. They are:
Huck (Guillermo Diaz): Tech guy, former CIA. He doesn't like to talk about that latter part.
Stephen Finch (Henry Ian Cusick): The one Olivia thinks should propose. He's a litigator and, as we later learn, a former lady's man. Henry Ian Cusick played Desmond on Lost, so he's already our favorite.
Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield): The team's investigator, Abby is a feisty red-head with a hardcore liberal streak.
Quinn gets all wide-eyed and fawning when she's introduced to Olivia, who apparently used to work for the White House. Olivia explains that her crack team may include lawyers — that's Quinn's role, too — but it's not a law firm. What is it? Well, they solve problems, manage crises, save reputations. Basically, whatever makes for an entertaining episode.
Also, as a side note, it turns out those mob guys had kidnapped some ambassador’s baby and Olivia got it back. So that's cool, and seems like a totally reasonable thing for a random citizen to have done.
Okay. Exposition over. Main plot time! A man conveniently stumbles into the office at just this moment. It turns out he's some famous conservative war hero named Sullivan St. James, a beloved public speaker with the potential to run for office one day. The problem? Someone just killed his girlfriend, Paige, and he was on the scene and touched a bunch of stuff there, like an idiot, so the police think he did it. But he swears he's innocent — she was his best friend! He'd never hurt her! — and he needs Olivia's help to keep him out of jail, save his reputation, the whole shebang. Hey, sounds easier than retrieving a baby from the mob.
So, does our team take the case? Well, duh, yes. They ostensibly vote about it, but really Olivia's opinion is the only one that matters. They take Sully on even though everyone else says no, because Olivia's gut says the guy is innocent, and her gut's never wrong. Of course it's not. She's exactly that kind of character.
She has one rule for her clients: They have to tell her everything. No lies. Of course, that means a good 90 percent of them are probably going to conceal all sorts of things. (Doesn't Olivia know everyone lies? We guess being a gladiator in a suit doesn't leave much time to watch House...)
After deciding to help Sully, the team jumps into action. Olivia wakes the US Attorney, David Rosen (Joshua Malina), up in the middle of the night and threatens him into giving her 24 hours before he arrests Sully. They clearly have a long history of this sort of thing, and he says she's annoying. We're calling it now: These two are going to hook up at some point. We'd be fine with it; they have that classic love-hate set-up and fantastic banter.
Meanwhile, Abby goes and checks out the crime scene (by, uh, blackmailing a policeman with the knowledge of his stripper-loving ways. It's cool), Stephen convinces some morgue worker he once slept with to fast-track the autopsy, and Harrison explains to Quinn that for Olivia and co. it's not about solving the crime or following the law (which must be why they love blackmail so much), it's about getting rid of the problem. Period. Also, they never sleep or have social lives. Of course they don't. It's that kind of show.
All of this not enough plot for you? Well good, because we're about to add more. Olivia gets a call from Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry), who is some sort of White House bigwig (Chief of Staff, maybe? If it's explicitly stated, we missed it, sorry). Turns out the President needs her help. Yes, that President. An aide named Amanda Tanner (Liza Weil) is claiming he's sleeping with her, and Cyrus wants Olivia to shut her down. Olivia's response? “I need to see him.” Him being the President. When Cyrus argues that he's too busy, she adds: “I do not work for him anymore. So, you tell the President of the United States to make time.” You know whoever wrote that line thought it was the coolest thing ever. Honestly, to us it came off as a bit much, but that's fine. This whole show is a bit much; clearly, that is part of the fun.
So Olivia goes to meet the President of the United States for a little chat, but not before once again telling Stephen to propose. Abby makes faces in the background during this little scene because apparently she's into Stephen. Of course she is. It's definitely that kind of show.
Olivia shows up at Camp David, makes nice with the First Lady, and then goes for a walk with the President. He manages to convince her that he wasn't sleeping with the aide by looking in her eyes and being all soulful. “You know there's only one person I love,” he declares. Sure, but is it his wife?
Meanwhile Quinn manages to find an old friend of Paige's, who spills to Abby that Paige was screwing some other guy, which means they have another viable suspect in the Sully case. Go team!
Olivia makes Quinn learn everything she can about this Amanda Tanner person, and then takes her along while she “handles” Amanda, which involves running into her while she's walking her dog and then making her cry in public with the power of words alone. This is our hero, ladies and gentleman. To be fair, what Olivia actually says — your life will be a living hell if you spread this story — is basically true. But still, harsh.
Quinn is justifiably freaked out, and starts to question whether this new job is actually an appropriate way for a moral person to make a living. But then Huck gives her a pep talk in the bathroom about how she, like all of Olivia's employees, is broken and needs Olivia to fix her and give her life meaning. So that's okay, then.
Back to the Sully case. Abby has some bad news: Not only does Paige's boy toy have an alibi, but it turns out Sully knew Paige was sleeping with him, giving Sully motive. Olivia is not amused, but she's won over when Sully gives another impassioned speech about being innocent. New goal: Make his alibi (which mostly involves wandering around outside) stick.
But first, Olivia tells Stephen that she's already made a date for him and his girlfriend, and she's also brought him a selection of engagement rings to choose from. Like Huck said, she fixes her employees, by brute force when necessary. Abby is still silently upset about Stephen's entire engagement plan. We guess Olivia can only worry about one employee's heart at a time — to be fair, she does have her hands pretty full with presidential affairs and mob babies and whatnot.
Suddenly, shit hits the fan all at once. Amanda shows up at the office, ranting about wanting to see the President. Then David shows up, and suddenly they only have 40 minutes to solve the Sully case before he's arrested. Fortunately, that puts a fire under all of their butts, and a well-placed bribe brings up secretary footage that shows Sully was with someone who can verify his alibi. The problem? That someone is his male lover.
That's right: Mr. Conservative is gay, and he allows himself to be arrested rather than tell Olivia the name of his boyfriend. “I honor the uniform!” he shouts. “I'm a hero. I. Can't. Be. Gay.” It's actually pretty heartbreaking, in that patented Shonda Rhimes way.
More bad things: Huck tells Quinn that Amanda is in the hospital after trying to kill herself. Quinn runs off to deal with it, because she has feelings and whatever. Is she supposed to be the “heart” of the show? We're thinking yes. Too bad she's kind of dopey so far.
Olivia shows up at the hospital and continues to insist Amanda is a liar until Quinn, in her endless rambling about all the things Amanda said to her while the camera was elsewhere, mentions that Amanda wants the President to come to her and call her “sweet baby.” Suddenly, Olivia is all kinds of pissed, and it's not at Amanda or Quinn.
It's at the President of the United States. So she goes to see him. In the Oval Office, 'cause she can just do that. All it takes is one look at her face for the president to clear the room and confront her alone. “Sweet baby?” she gasps at him.“Sweet baby?”
You probably guessed it already: These two are former lovers. Apparently she left him (and her job with him), so he could devote himself to his wife and running the country and being a good person — not so he could bang some aide.
Okay. So, then the President backs Olivia up against a wall even though she asks him not to touch her, and gets all in her space while she tries to get him to admit he was sleeping with Amanda. He tells her he loves her and she slaps him, yelling about how he clouded her judgment and made her mistrust her gut (not her gut! Anything but that!). And then he kisses her, and she kind of kisses back, and then Cyrus walks in on them and Olivia leaves, ashamed.
And. Yeah. So...That scene was really icky, right? Olivia was clearly upset, angry, and disgusted with the President, and he basically forced himself on her even though she was clearly telling him not to touch her. We don't have anything against sketchy characters, but we're not really sure if the scene was supposed to be off-putting, or if it was supposed to be weirdly tragic and romantic or something along those lines. We hope not, because man, we do not like the President even a little bit right now.
Olivia apparently isn't willing to let her own personal drama get in the way of fixing everyone else's problems. She stops by the restaurant to give Stephen one last pep talk about how he has to give marriage a shot or he'll regret it (she does almost break down crying in the closet after he proposes, so clearly her run-in at the White House affected her).
Then she goes to Sully, and gives an impassioned speech about love being important and not living a lie. She claims she knows how he feels. “Who you are, who you love, that shouldn't be a secret,” she says. This is a sentiment we're 100 percent behind when it comes to Sully, but we don't like the implication that Olivia might be thinking about the President while she's saying it. Don't love him, Olivia! You can do so much better!
Fortunately, Sully is convinced, and his story ends on a happy note as he comes out on TV, surrounded by fellow Marines who stand by his side. Aww. We won't lie, we teared up a bit. You can always count on Shonda for good messages about diversity and accepting yourself.
At headquarters, Stephen gives Abby a one armed hug — he thinks they're bros. She has a great “man, I need to get over this guy” face. Fine. We'll buy into this problematic little romance. Abby is awesome. Quinn, meanwhile, tries to wrap her head around the fact that on this TV show in this job, we really don't care who committed the crime as long as the client's problem is solved.
And, oh yeah, Olivia is taking Amanda as a client. Bo-yah, extended arc!
So, what did you think of the pilot? Voice your opinion in the comments below.
Tune in for the next episode of Scandal on Thursday April 12 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
Rebecca Martin is an editor at Wetpaint. Follow her on Twitter @BeccaMartin47.