With a title like Scandal, surely you didn't expect subtlety to be on the menu of Shonda Rhimes' latest ABC potboiler. But as a companion piece to her enduring and still entertaining breakthrough Grey's Anatomy, it's just what the doctor ordered. If your doctor happens to be an indulgent "Dr. Feelgood" specializing in shameless guilty pleasures.
First, though, you have to make it through a very busy, annoyingly self-conscious and exposition-filled first episode (10:01/9:01c), introducing the crisis-management firm of Olivia Pope & Associates to the audience — our stand-in being a goggle-eyed new recruit of uncertain origin and talent (Katie Lowes, a weak link). Olivia's team of "fixers" considers themselves "gladiators in suits," an attitude that gets old quick. And when we first meet the well-connected, glamorous Olivia (Kerry Washington), she's humorlessly barking lines like "The FBI is sick of me," "This is not a law firm," and regarding their newest hign-profile client who finds himself in tabloid-unfriendly hot water: "In this moment, we are the judge and we are the jury, the media and the public opinion."
Full of yourself much, Olivia? Scandal is full of something, all right, and the longer I watched the seven-episode tryout run, the more I realized what I was actually seeing (and eventually devouring): dirty, juicy fun, a rebirth of the old-fashioned miniseries — the Sidney Sheldon beach-read variety — a breathlessly overheated melodrama with gorgeous actors and gaudy plotting. Keep with it, and it soon becomes a preposterously propulsive exercise in popcorn TV. With crazy-sauce butter on top.
Quietly revolutionary in its matter-of-fact casting of an African-American female lead as a confrontational power broker who stands up to CEOs and dictators, Scandal turns up the heat as Olivia's employees (including Lost's Henry Ian Cusick in the underwritten role of a philandering lawyer) bend the law with their scorched-earth tactics. The case-of-the-week format soon becomes subsumed within a larger, loonier arc, as the firm is embroiled in a web of salacious events — think Monica Lewinsky, only worse — that lead all the way to the White House, where Olivia once worked very closely with the dashing president (Tony Goldwyn), whose administration is full of surprises.
In Scandal, very important people are caught with their pants down, sometimes literally, as the twists turn increasingly deadly and outrageous. This may not be Peabody material, but if you like a show that's not afraid to go bananas, this might just be your type of low-hanging fruit.
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AN UNCIVIL WAR: If you've ever wondered why some of us make such a fuss over NBC's cult comedy Community, this week's brilliantly executed, riotously inspired episode (8/7c) is a perfect opportunity to once and for all satisfy your curiosity. A wacky and impeccably sustained homage to the signature style of TV historian Ken Burns, "Pillows and Blankets" chronicles "the largest and longest pillow fight in community-college history." Child's play? That's the point, because the antagonists leading the charge on this feather-strewn battlefield are Troy and Abed (the spot-on Donald Glover and Danny Pudi), the emotionally stunted and eternally naïve best buds whose strained friendship is at the heart of this polarizing conflict. "You're children acting like grown-ups," declares their role model Jeff (Joel McHale), who's less effective at mediating than usual — possibly because, as the omnipresent narrator notes, his bombastic rhetoric may actually be a "Ferris Bueller-ian attempt to delay schoolwork."
The visuals hilariously complement the dense, gag-laden text, as Britta's blurry pretentious photography is joined by some classically bad poetry — and a series of texts between Jeff and Annie (Alison Brie) that give us "a glimpse beneath the cushions of war to the lost pennies and grody Q-tips of war's emotional toll." There's not a wasted frame or a missed opportunity in this glorious send-up, which asks the profound question (courtesy of Jim Rash's Dean Pelton): "Do people go to classes?"
TICKLE ME MOVED: Not everyone knows the name Kevin Clash, but everyone knows Elmo, the irrepressibly affectionate red Muppet who represents to a later Sesame Streetgeneration what Grover meant to mine. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, a presentation of PBS' Independent Lens (check local listings) by filmmaker Constance Marks, is a loving biographical portrait of Clash, who grew up in working-class Baltimore in the '70s obsessed by the magic of Jim Henson's Muppetry. Encouraged by his parents, he designed his own menagerie of puppets to entertain himself and the kids his mom babysat. After being discovered by a local station, the shy Clash made (with the help of his determined mother) a fateful connection with Kermit Love, one of Henson's key creature builders. The rest would be Muppet and TV history, imbued with the creative wonder of the Muppet Workshop and the legacy of the equally soft-spoken Henson.
"I knew that Elmo should represent love," Clash says of his "eureka" moment when he found the voice for the Muppet that has escaped others (including the renowned Richard Hunt). His love for the craft is evident in Being Elmo, never more than when he's being Kevin Clash, giving back to a new generation of fledgling puppeteers ready to carry on the tradition.
ONE LEG AT A TIME: While watching the season finale of MTV's likably shaggy-dog urban comedy I Just Want My Pants Back (11/10c), I found myself wishing I'd paid closer attention over the last two months to the ups and downs of these oversexed, underachieving Brooklyn twentysomethings. (I blame Jersey Shore for forcing me to avert my gaze from MTV on Thursdays, and this too-late time period on an overstuffed night of programming didn't help.) I see a catch-up session in my future, to better appreciate what led these characters to the modestly amusing events of tonight's episode, in which the hero Jason (Peter Vack) gets a double whammy of good news: first on the job front, and then while celebrating, on the love front, as he once again meets Jane, the elusive girl who stole his heart — and his pants — in the pilot episode. She has his number, it's clear, but why did she give him a fake one?
Meanwhile, his BFF Tina (the terrific Kim Shaw) doesn't know how to react to the emotional "static cling" of her latest beau, who's a far cry — too far? — from the usual "hipster jerks" she carouses with. And in the most comic subplot, loving couple Eric and Stacey (Jordan Carlos and Elisabeth Hower) invite his professor to dinner, in hopes of getting Eric over his med-school ambivalence. It doesn't go as planned.
Pants falls somewhere on the comedy spectrum between the shrill nonsense of CBS' 2 Broke Girls and the lacerating honesty of HBO's upcoming sensation-to-be Girls. Note to MTV: Pair this with the terrific Awkward. Pants would be a great, smart fit.
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