Notorious is the first non-Shondaland show to invade ABC’s Thursday nights since Rhimes commandeered all three hours over the past season or two. But there’s a reason for that: Notorious has a lot in common with that particular brand. It features a powerful female lead who pulls all the strings, not just at her job, but apparently for the world, even as her personal life spins out of control. She lives in a fast-paced landscape with scandals, secrets, and crimes aplenty, alongside a handsome male lead to stoke some will-they/won’t-they fire. These leads are surrounded by trope-friendly characters anyone would recognize—the bitter veteran, the ambitious hopeful—and every new script reveal strips off a layer to show a new gasp-inducing truth underneath.
Like Scandal (and this season’s Bull, for that matter), Notorious is based on a real person (or people): the relationship between criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos and Larry King Live news producer Wendy Walker, who have signed on as executive producers. Although Notorious’ taglines brag that “They don’t make headlines… They control them,” it’s not like Larry King really commands that type of influence, but let’s just imagine that we all hang on Nancy Grace’s last word or whatever. Julia George (Piper Perabo), the TV producer, and Jake Gregorian (Daniel Sunjata), the lawyer, are supposed to have a symbiotic relationship in which his cases are featured on her show, ultimately feeding both their purposes. The matching monograms set the two up as equals, ones that just happen to brim with sexual tension. The leads are certainly attractive and charismatic enough; Perabo, especially, always seems to deserve better than what she gets on TV, even as her job here consists mostly of grabbing people by the shoulder and yelling, “Go!” But Jake and Julia are surrounded by nothing but flash: shiny things meant to distract us in a fast-and-furious manner, with little substance.
Notorious comes to us from executive producer Josh Berman (who created the series along with blogger Allie Hagan). Berman has been hit-or-miss in his TV series: everything from CSI and The Blacklist all the way down to The Mob Doctor. Notorious unfortunately resides at the lower end of that spectrum. The problem is that after so many years of Scandal, and The Good Wife, even The Newsroom, it would take a whole hell of a lot for the average TV viewer to be intrigued by any case-of-the-week Notorious had to offer. An IT mogul in trouble? A lost love? A boyfriend who’s too good to be true? Journalists and lawyers who might as well be private detectives for all their mad investigation skills? Ho-hum.
Lest we miss how important all of these efforts are, the inevitable newbie is schooled by the petulant vet, who informs the rookie that this talk show shapes the entire world by creating “heroes and monsters, victims and villains, [to] tell the world when to pay attention, and what really matters.” But telling falls far short of showing, so by the end of the pilot we’re still at a loss to ponder the ramifications of a bigwig’s vehicular homicide in our daily lives. The relationship between Jake’s lawyer and Julia’s producer is intriguing, especially when they pull one over on the show (and subsequently the world). But by the end of the first episode, they’re already on opposite sides, in an effort meant to be shocking but that just feels inevitable.
Berman occasionally gets caught up in too-complicated premises: The Mob Doctor was actually not quite as simple as that title would suggest, and Drop Dead Diva had to wrestle the logistics of why different people’s souls were in different bodies. Here, with two leads who don’t work in the same place, Notorious has to pull off two simultaneous supporting staffs, when just one is enough to keep track of in a pilot. At least Kate Jennings Grant appears to be having fun in her role as the host of the show Julia produces, a Nancy Grace gone wild, holing up in hotel rooms with nubile young men and inviting interns in for three-ways. J. August Richards is always welcome, playing Jake’s brother, but the two annoying and puppyish newbies from both staffs will probably hook up sooner than even Jake and Julia will eventually. Perabo and Sunjata have fun playing off of each other (notably in an elevator scene), but without each other to spark off of, both performers fall flat.
Then again, Scandal took a turn for the execrable last season, so if frivolous and flashy ripped-from-the-headlines episodes are your bag, you may enjoy the baseless fluff of Notorious. But you’ll likely forget all of it by the time the actual evening news rolls around.