“You Tell the President of the United States To Make Time!”

ABC’s Scandal offers a delicious heroine and a soapy take on Beltway drama.

Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope in Scandal, the new series on ABC premiering April 5.

ABC/Danny Feld

Scandal (ABC, Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET) finds producer Shonda Rhimes—she of Grey’s Anatomy, that Semmelweis wash of a nighttime soap—sudsing up the Potomac. Kerry Washington stars as Olivia Pope, known to Scandal’s D.C. as “the Olivia Pope.” Ms. Pope’s profession is slightly tricky to define. “We’re lawyers, but this is not a law firm,” says one of her deputies. “I’m a gladiator in a suit,” he adds elsewhere, with snappy grandiosity. Olivia is a fixer with a special talent for resolving problems related to the libidos of the political class.

The predicaments of Pope’s clients—square-jawed war heroes arrested for killing lovers, molasses-voiced madams with black books as dense as white dwarves—drive the A-plots of each episode, but the woman’s own romantic situation provides the series with an overarching soap bubble. Formerly a federal employee, Pope worked directly under President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn). Played directly under him, too. (The previous sentence does not warrant a spoiler warning; people who could not have anticipated that revelation must be so unfamiliar with the laws of ABC dramas that they would only watch Scandal by accident. Or else they’re too dumb to read.) Oh, she loved him truly, and she left him because he was married and she loved her country and her self-respect even more.

Like House and Monk and everybody else doing anything detective or diagnostic on contemporary TV, Pope is a genius of intuition, and she is forever explaining, curtly, that she knows whether so-and-so is lying because her “gut” has told her so. When she learns that her executive-branch ex lied to her about another, more recent, affair, she is most aggrieved that he caused her to betray her instincts. The scene builds to a remonstrance: “You made me mistrust my gut.” She is damning him for futzing with the compass that guides her as a woman and, perhaps more importantly, a businesswoman.

Oh, President Grant was hot for her, as who would not be? Washington (the actress, not the city on a hill in the swamp) strides scenes at high swagger, less a gladiator in a suit than an avenging angel in an ivory trench coat. It can be problematic to describe a black woman’s screen performance as fierce, but Washington invests the character such chewy chutzpah—“You tell the President of the United States to make time!”—that there’s no way around it. She leaks tears as juicy as a Lichtenstein girl’s in her wounded moments, and she sells all the silliness by conducting herself like a diva singing vivacissimo.  

The pace is the thing. The procedural stuff—the mug shots and forensics, the piecing together of evidence and pasting up of photographs—skitters by in craftily edited flashes. Rhimes hustles the audience into episodes in the middle of things. Pope and her colleagues speak at a clip suggesting years of study at the West Wing School of Elocution and Composition. In the rush, I scarcely had time to scoff at the over-the-top content of the pilot, where Pope takes on that war-hero-with-a-dead-girlfriend as a client. The character—“the most decorated war hero since Vietnam” andPeople’s Sexiest Man Alive 2010”—is a rising star in hard-right politics. One member of Pope’s team chafes at representing a man who would out-Santorum Santorum, and the show implicitly sanctions the staffer’s politics, but the boss lady is professionally nonideological, a mercenary in a Stella McCartney blouse.

Viewers who get hooked on Scandal will spend the commercial breaks sussing out its take on love and work, and the experience will be rather like trying to discern the exact composition of flavors in a tasty batch of BBQ potato chips. In the opening scene, a new recruit to Pope’s firm shows up for her job interview thinking she’s been set up on a blind date. Another underling has bedded a pretty medical examiner, passionately interested in both her mind and her bodies. The gladiators almost always flirt when they threaten the Feds. On Scandal, sexual tension is indivisible from all the other kinds. “Don’t any of you have husbands, wives, kids?” wonders the newbie. They’re married to the job, says the show, and doing their marital duty every Thursday night.