Imagine representing high-profile people as they navigate the worst time in their lives: Monica Lewinsky during the President Bill Clinton debacle; Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings; Michael Vick during the dog fighting investigation. Welcome to the premise of Shonda Rhimes' newest drama series, Scandal.
Set in Washington, D.C., Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope, the head of Pope & Associates, a crisis management firm with a unique staff of lawyers, investigators and hackers (Henry Ian Cusick, Katie Lowes, Columbus Short, Darby Stanchfield and Guillermo Diaz) and a client list that includes the president (Tony Goldwyn) and his family and staff (Bellamy Young, Jeff Perry, Kate Burton) as well as madams, dictators and an airline company.
From Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, the producers behind Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, the seven-episode midseason entry -- which is based on the career of Judy Smith -- dives right in when the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. enlist Olivia after a young White House aide claims she had an affair with President Fitzgerald Grant (Goldwyn).
Here are 10 things to know about Scandal from the cast and creators ahead of Thursday's premiere.
1. While Scandal is loosely based on Smith's life and career, she didn't sleep with a president. "Judy was like, 'I'm going to have to call George Bush Sr. and explain to him that this happened," Rhimes recalls of her conversation informing Smith of Washington's story line. While there are similarities in the early portion of the season to the president's woes with Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal, those comparisons won't last long. "It’s really not Monica; I’ve obviously known her and spent a lot of time with her but as you see all the episodes, it's really not about that," Smith says. "It evolves." The project, meanwhile, first started when Beers set up a meeting between Rhimes and Smith that stretched from its planned 20 minutes to nearly three hours. "I was engaged in the first five seconds," Rhimes says. "The way Judy thinks is fascinating; she thinks likes a fixer. I realized that this is an exciting world that probably had more than 100 episodes to it." Smith, too, was on board from the start -- she's a co-executive producer on Scandal -- and made herself readily available to Rhimes and Beers as well as the cast, including Washington. "Even though we play to win and it's strategic and we take no prisoners, gladiators in a suit, really it's because Olivia Pope wants to take care of people and she believes people deserve a second chance," Washington says.
2. The associates' back stories and mystery of why Olivia selected everyone will be explained in a flashback episode this season. "Olivia has picked people who are really good at crisis because they understand crisis because they've had their own situations in their life that have felt unfixable," Washington says. "We get to see how this office came together and how I wound up working on the president's campaign and that early period on the campaign as well as the origins of her relationship with Fitz."
3. With Olivia hand-picking her staff for a reason, one question will loom large over the entire season: Who is newcomer Quinn Perkins (Lowes)? "Her morals are not what they seem," Rhimes teases of the character. "It's more about who Quinn Perkins really is that becomes a real question. That will be explored big time. That is definitely part of [the big cliffhanger]." Lowes, meanwhile, says Quinn serves as the gateway into this world for the audience: "Quinn is very much being thrown into this world that she knows nothing about. Olivia Pope is her dream role model/woman in life."
4. While it's set in D.C. and features a White House story line, Scandal really isn't about politics. "For me, Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice are not medical shows; they're shows about people and the medicine is the backdrop," Rhimes says, noting it wasn't partially inspired by The West Wing. "Scandal is a show about people and crisis is the backdrop. I was trying to do a show about this woman, this group of people and what Judy does for a living. It doesn't necessarily have to do with the minutia of political life every single day." Adds Beers: "What Judy does and what Olivia Pope does, it's politicians, it's famous people, it's not famous people, it's dignitaries, it's plane crashes. It's a full range, which allows you to go anywhere, do anything. The fact is somebody you know some place is having a crisis. They don’t necessarily all end up in politics."
5. Season 1 feels like a British miniseries in that it's only seven episodes. "It feels more like State of Play than like a regular network show," Rhimes says. "The seven episodes work as a whole; we're telling a story in which there's a little bit of a cliffhanger at the end of every episode. When you leave at the end of the season, while you have a lot of questions that need to be answered, the larger part of the mystery or intrigue that was happening this season is finished."
6. Prepare for the "Scandal pace." With scripts in the 70-page range (compared with 55 pages for Private Practice) Scandal features rapid-fire dialogue. "The pace of the show matches the crisis," Smith says. Adds Beers: "The pace becomes breakneck and by the time you get to Episode 5 or 6, you are panting in your chair."
7. Despite describing President Fitzgerald Grant as a blend of Democrats, Scandal's leader of the free world is a Republican. "I didn't look at performances of actors as presidents, though I've loved so many of them from Jeff Bridges to Martin Sheen," Goldwyn says. "Character-wise, Fitz is really like a cross between John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Obama. Mush those three together and in so many different ways, he's rather like them." Rhimes says the choice to feature a Republican front and center was partially inspired by the division within the party. "What's going on right now with the Tea Party, that allowed for a lot of drama that's going to go down with the vice president (Burton) as we move forward," she says. "It felt like it made sense because we were not trying to portray the current administration in any way."
8. Olivia's history with the president will be explored. "It's an obstacle you can't get over," Beers says of Olivia and Fitz's relationship. "I got excited about the idea of how impossible their love could be." Part of that exploration will come from the first lady's (Young) point of view. "There are some really interesting plot moments that unfold between Olivia and the first lady where we begin to see how much they know about each other and how much they navigate the complexities of their relationships with Fitz," Washington warns. Adds Rhimes: "By the end of the seven episodes, you'll know what the nature of Olivia's relationship with the president is."
9. Rhimes, who notes she's obsessed with the White House and how it runs, says it wasn't intentional to launch the show during an election year since she and Smith first met nearly three years ago. "I went back and forth: Is it a good thing or is it a bad thing that it's an election year? Are the comparisons going to be good? I kept saying I hope that none of these Republican candidates explodes into a crazy scandal because we're going to be compared to it if that's what happens. But it's turning out to be fine."
10. There are no good characters and no bad characters. Part of the show's mystery surrounding the president will evolve to paint nearly everyone as both heroes and villains at times. "Nobody’s all good and nobody's all bad," Washington says. "I don’t think that Olivia Pope believes that the law is always an accurate reflection of good and bad; justice is more complicated than the law. So Olivia and Pope & Associates is really about trying to make sure that people deserve a second chance. They try to even the playing ground and be helpful to people who don’t have anywhere else to go if they feel like that help is deserved and justifiable."
Are you intrigued about Scandal? What are you most looking forward to seeing? Scandal premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on ABC following Grey's Anatomy.