Can a propulsive plot make up for preposterous characters?
Before you decide, factor this into the Scandal (* * 1/2 out of four, ABC, 10 ET Thursday) equation: The central character — Olivia Pope, a crisis management specialist treated here as Savior of the Western World — is as grating and ridiculous a creation as ever dragged down a TV show. Then add in a charm-free, strident star turn by Kerry Washington, who plugs into every self-important bit of congratulatory excess the other characters feed Olivia when she should be deflating or deflecting them.
To be fair to Washington, it's hard to keep a character likable when every single one of the show's seven episodes pauses at some point to let someone sing Olivia's praises. If you can't follow the old "show don't tell" adage, at least have the sense not to tell us more than once.
There's another factor: The dialogue, from Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, amplifies past the point of tolerance everything people love and loathe about Grey's chatter, from jokey repetition ("I am the law, the law is me") to grandiose verbosity: "I'm a gladiator in a suit. That's what you are when you work for Olivia. You're a gladiator in a suit. Do you want to be a gladiator in a suit?" You feel compelled to shout "no."
So why watch a show that comes across as bad political fantasy, despite being based on the life of a Washington public relations insider? For one thing, you get to spend time with Lost's Henry Ian Cusick, who compensates for an out-of-her-depth Katie Lowes as a lawyer who has less of a grasp of the criminal process than anyone who ever saw an hour of CSI.
Even better, though, winding through this short seven-week run and around each weekly story is a tidy central mystery involving the president (Tony Goldwyn), his chief (Jeff Perry) and a young woman (Gilmore Girls' Liza Weil) who threatens to destroy their administration. Like everything else in Scandal, it rings false — but it clips along at a good pace, and it has enough twists and complications to keep you guessing without making you feel abused. Plus, despite an unnecessary, subsidiary final cliffhanger, the show wraps up its main story in satisfying, surprising fashion. The Killing could take note.
Would that be enough to sustain a 22-episode series? No. But at just seven hours, you can think of Scandal as the modern equivalent of those old Sidney Sheldon miniseries and enjoy it at that level. Assuming you can get through the first hour. And past the main character.
The choice, as always, is up to you.