The sum total of my knowledge about Scandal was this: The Limited has a clothing line named for it. So I’m reacting to this pilot unbiased. (Spoilers ahead.)
As any pilot of a procedural, this one has to introduce a season-long story arc while delivering a case/mystery/monster of the week. Things of the week are a tricky thing, and some shows put more weight on them than others. Some shows use the thing of the week only in support of the A plot, and it really doesn’t matter that much. For others, the main focus is on the thing of the week and little bits of series arc simply bookend the episode. (I have more to say on this subject with regard to iZombie, but I’ll get to that another day.)
When you create a pilot for a procedural you have to figure out what thing of the week will best support the work of introducing the characters while also dazzling the viewer. Castle is an example of a show where the case of the week was actually the catalyst for the series action. Kate is working a murder that mimics one in a Richard Castle book, so she brings in the author to consult, and a partnership is born.
Scandal opens not with somebody finding a body, as so many of these shows do, but with a date that’s actually a job interview. The young woman becomes frustrated at being duped into an interview, which most people would agree is super weird. But the interviewer offers her the chance to work for Olivia Pope, a name that strikes reference in the interviewee. The job is as a “Gladiator in a Suit,” which struck me as a strange choice of metaphor, since I thought gladiators were slaves.
(This handy post from The History Channel enlightened me. Some gladiators were actually mercenaries out for glory and money, some of them even women, and the fights didn’t necessarily end in death. So once we start to see the kind of battles that Olivia Pope, et. al., fight, it’s actually fitting.)
There’s some lingering confusion for the viewer about what a Gladiator in a Suit actually does, since the group who works for Her Highness the Pope is keen on telling everyone what they’re not (e.g. a law firm). What we discover more quickly is the source of these people’s power: They know secrets. They’re Washington D.C. insiders, and Olivia herself recently worked for the President. Their arsenal of dirty laundry allows them to coerce people into doing what they want.
The case-of-the-week is about a decorated Marine, nicknamed Sully, who’s accused of murdering his fiancé. Although he insists upon his innocence, he refuses to give an alibi. Eventually Pope’s people find him one, along with the reason he kept it secret. He’s been a vocal hero for the anti-gay right wing while he himself is gay. The fiancé was a close friend dutifully guarding the door to his closet. There’s street cam footage of him kissing another guy at the time of the murder.
For a premiere episode, this thing-of-the-week isn’t a strong choice. The guy is so petrified of being outed that he’s willing to go down for murder, yet he kissed another man on a street corner. If he’s that famous, and his sexual orientation is so secret, would he take a risk like that? Speaking of ridiculous risk, it turns out Olivia has been having an affair with the President. They also kiss and are caught — fortunately by a single individual and not on camera.
The show’s creators obviously picked this storyline because they want to draw a parallel about living a lie, but to compare having an affair with a public figure to being gay? Bit of a stretch. For one thing, Olivia is hiding what most would call a really poor life choice, while Sully is hiding his true self. It’s a bit presumptuous of her to think she can relate to a feeling that Sully has lived with his whole life. Olivia uses their supposed similarity to convince him to come out. It’s satisfying to watch him make the difficult choice even while another character is going public with her own secret and Olivia herself keeps hers. Still, it all feels forced.
Obviously the show has been highly successful so its inaugural thing of the week choice didn’t hamstring it. Other shows haven’t fared as well. Which thing of the week introduces a show can make the difference between an engaging show and a train job… er, wreck.