This week, the much-hyped, soapy new drama Notorious debuts on ABC smack dab in between Thursday-night powerhouses Grey's Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder. (Scandal was pushed to midseason to accommodate Kerry Washington's pregnancy.)
Loosely based on the peculiar real-life relationship between criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos and Larry King Live producer Wendy Walker, Notorious stars Daniel Sunjata and Piper Perabo as friends who have no problem exploiting the media, the justice system and each other if it helps them get ahead. But while Notorious has all the obvious trappings of a Shondaland series (snappy banter, dramatic monologues, torrid affairs and sensational crimes), Notorious has no business disrupting the TGIT block.
Julia (Perabo) is a producer on a popular cable news show, but as one character explains, Julia's job is so much more than that: "She decides what the country cares about. She creates heroes and monsters, victims and villains. Julia George tells the world what to pay attention to and what really matters."
But for someone who supposedly decides who the media vilifies and who they embrace, Julia's personality remains frustratingly ambiguous. Would she cross any line to produce high ratings? Maybe. Would she put her journalistic integrity at risk to help those closest to her? Perhaps. Does she live for this job, or does she want to do more with her life? Who the heck knows?! It's impossible to say much definitively about Julia, because her priorities are never firmly established throughout the pilot, despite her being the show's female lead.
In one telling scene, Julia has agreed to sell out her ex on national television because the original guest was a no-show and they needed a big story. When she expresses doubts to the show's host about going through with it, Julia is told she can handle the interview because she's "a tough-a-- bitch." Hearing this, Julia smiles and all of her doubts are seemingly quelled.
It's a bizarre moment, and one that best encapsulates how far from Shondaland Notorious truly is. The women in Shonda Rhimes' shows always know who they are, what they want and how far they're willing to go. They make their own decisions, and even when these choices might seem wrong (like, say, rigging an election or covering up a murder), it's easy to understand why these women chose that path. Julia George is such a distorted echo of the empowered Meredith Grey, Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, it does Rhimes a disservice to even mention them together in the same sentence.
This is no fault of Perabo's, who makes the most of the lackluster material. Sadly, the same can't be said for her co-lead Sunjata, who plays Julia's friend and often co-conspirator, defense attorney Jake Gregorian. The brief moments of banter between Sunjata and Perabo show good chemistry between the pair, but when Sunjata's saddled with the pilot's weightier moments, his attempts at strong emotion come off so wooden, I was briefly convinced his character was actually performing these feelings as part of a ruse. And while Jake using emotion to manipulate people could have been an interesting layer in his character, the last thing Notorious needs is more twists.
On Grey's, Scandal and Murder, every reveal has a purpose and each twist is timed for maximum impact. But the producers of Notorious clearly believe in a kitchen-sink approach to television, throwing a half-season's worth of twists into an already over-stuffed premiere. And without a well-paced through line to tie everything together, none of Notorious' copious reveals land, resulting in a messy hour of television that lacks the expertly controlled chaos of Rhimes' shows.
Fortunately, we'll only have to wait a few more months until Scandal (and TGIT) return, and then we can all pretend Notorious was some sort of fever dream or forget it altogether.
Notorious premieres Thursday, Sept. 22 at 9/8c on ABC.