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ABC's Scandal goofily practices D.C. damage control (when it's not being just plain aggravating)

Kerry Washington is "fixer" Olivia Pope in Scandal. ABC photo

Premiering: Thursday, April 5th at 9 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Kerry Washington, Henry Ian Cusick, Katie Lowes, Columbus Short, Darby Stanchfield, Guillermo Diaz, Tony Goldwyn, Jeff Perry
Produced by: Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers

Along comes Scandal, another aggravatingly imperfect melodrama from Grey's Anatomy/Private Practice creator Shonda Rhimes.

It's regularly preachy and far-fetched, with the key characters tending to speed-talk as though they're all in a Go-Kart race. Never more so than in Thursday's opening scene, when a recruit meets a recruiter in a Washington, D.C. bar. Words spurt from their mouths at a pace that might make even Aaron Sorkin a bit dizzy. Viewers will be hard-pressed to hang on every word when the words zoom their way between two Rhimes-written refrains -- "I don't do blind dates" and "I want to be a gladiator in a suit."

I wanted to quit watching Scandal in an even bigger hurry. Instead I ended up wading through all three episodes available for review on ABC's media site. Because despite all of its overwrought, seemingly under-thought machinations, Scandal also has a certain amount of pulling power.

It's not every day, for instance, that a weekly broadcast network series has a running plot in which a relatively young president of the United States yearns to re-ignite the interracial affair he had with his beautiful communications director. That same communications director now runs her own super-powered crisis management firm. And their paths cross anew when Republican prez Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) asks Olivia Pope (series star Kerry Washington) to intercede on his behalf after a White House intern seems poised to go public with a charge that he had a fling with her.

"It's not right. Makes me look like a dirty old man," the president tells Pope after insisting it's all been fabricated on the intern's part.

Then it gets really dicey when Pope learns the real truth and barges into the Oval Office just as her tuxedoed former lover is ready to give a toast to the president of France. A slap in the face, a hard kiss and some yelling ensue before the president's harried chief of staff rushes in and tells them to keep it down.

This is all in Thursday's frenetically paced opening episode, during which Pope's firm also takes on the case of a much-decorated war hero and resultant conservative "poster boy" who's been accused of murdering his girlfriend by firing three slugs into her head. Uh-oh, he ends up having a very inconvenient but ironclad alibi. But this will require a public fess-up that turns Scandal into an exceedingly heavy-handed polemic.

It also might ruffle a few right-of-center feathers when one of Pope's team members initially blurts that she doesn't want to take the case "because it's too messy, too much work, and I hate Republicans."

The lead character of Olivia Pope is at least loosely based on real-life D.C. crisis manager Judy Smith, who gets a co-producer credit. Earlier in her career Smith took on what proved to be the impossible task of heading NBC Universal television's publicity department. Compared to that, these over-the-top cases are a snap. Although Smith insists that she's never slept with a sitting president.

Besides nervous newcomer Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes), Pope's snap-to-it task force includes recovering womanizer Stephen Finch (Henry Ian Cusick from Lost); slickster Harrison Wright (Columbus Short); peppy lefty Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield) and a comparatively slovenly "hacker extraordinaire" known only as Huck (Guillermo Diaz).

They strategize in what seemingly is supposed to be a heavily secured HQ. But that doesn't stop just about anybody from barging in, whether it's the hapless district attorney or a cub reporter for the so-called "D.C. Sun."

Episode 2 finds the team aiding D.C.'s longtime "finest madam," who doesn't want her prominent client list made public. That includes a guy who's all set to be President Grant's first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. Episode 3 features the rape prosecution of a privileged punk whose wealthy mother happens to be a prominent client of Pope's firm.

Each hour also advances the president-in-jeopardy storyline, with intern Amanda now represented by Pope while the leader of the free world still yearns to dump his First Lady and go balls to the wall with the woman he really loves. Namely his darlin' "Livvy," who by the way looks particularly smashing in the white sheath dress she wears to a White House State dinner.

The dialogue can be a riot at times, probably not intentionally.

Hear Huck lay out the rules of the road to the teary rookie Quinn: "You're a stray dog and Olivia took you in. Don't question it. No crying. We don't cry. Ever."

Thrill to Olivia spurring her troops to action with a hearty, "All cylinders, people! Let's go!"

And boy, the prez sure has a point when his First Lady clandestinely cancels his morning appointments because he's not been sleeping well lately. "I'm the leader of the free world. I do not sleep in!" he rages while still in his jammies.

This is all one helluva stretch -- and also ridiculously entertaining whenever those establishing shots of the White House kick in. NBC's The West Wing re-imagined the president as an actually principled guy who wanted to do good and asked his top aides to likewise aspire to higher callings.

Scandal gives viewers a D.C. that moves to the down-and-dirty beats of shysters, cynics, philanderers and craven opportunists. Over the top? Yeah. Closer to the truth of the matter? That, too.

GRADE: C+ (mostly for not being boring)