I have a confession to make. I cheated when I watched this. I was trundling along quite happily watching week by week on Channel 4, frustrated that we were months behind the US, but plodding through. Then a friend pointed me at a reliable online source of episodes and I promptly lost an entire weekend, utterly incapable of doing anything but watching episodes back to back until I reached the end of the season.
That could be taken as an indication of just how good the show is, but it’s more complicated than that. The show is completely and manipulatively addictive; each episode racing along and ending on irresistible cliffhangers. There are so many mysteries and storylines, each constantly waxing and waning that you’re carried along without having time to stop and ponder the the fact that it’s actually a bit rubbish.
Most of the plots make no sense. I was utterly lost about who knew what about which conspiracy as everything twisted itself in knots. Then various characters and relationships just go round and round in dysfunctional and destructive circles of “we shouldn’t”, “but we want to”, “but we shouldn’t” until the only sensible conclusion is that everyone should retreat to separate corners of the globe and have nothing at all to do with each other.
But then the Shonda Rhimes magic kicks in. You don’t want the characters to be apart, because they’re so fascinating together. In the first season I was full of praise for Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope and my admiration has only increased. She plays Pope’s great strength and great vulnerability perfectly in synch with each other, a woman whose brain has all the answers but whose heart still makes poor choices. After the very short first season I commented that the supporting characters got minimal development but had potential. Boy does that potential fly this season. With the possible exception of Harrison, everyone gets a huge amount of backstory and character development, while still leaving massive amounts of mystery and interest. Ironically, of all the characters I think the weakest is actually the President, who comes across increasingly like a sulky, lovesick teenager.
I do maybe wish that the series would slow down a bit, allowing more time for the stories and characters to marinade before rushing on to the next challenge. I thought the first season was rushed because of the episode count, but it turns out that’s just the pace they want to move at. It does wobble precariously between busy and chaotic, the moment when John Barrowman appeared and was actually the most understated thing in the episode was a moment that should have caused some pause in the writers room.
But like Grey’s Anatomy, the faults don’t really matter because it’s a show that I HAVE TO WATCH. Every episode has a moment that has me immediately wanting to share with a friend and gossip about. It replaces the emotional manipulation of Grey’s Anatomy with intrigue and mystery, but loses absolutely none of the heart. Come on Channel 4, I need season 3 now. This instant!