One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
According to movies and TV, at least, sex and journalism go hand in hand. It’s a recognizable stereotype—pop culture frequents the archetypical hard-hitting reporter who boinks their way to one big scoop after another—but it goes completely against the basic ethical principles to which real life journalists must hold themselves. Sure, a dedicated journo often needs to be pushy to get a tough source to crack, but it’s high crime to sleep one’s way through the red tape, even if it helps bring truths to the public.
ABC’s Notorious builds its entire plot on illicit relationships between the media and their subjects. There isn’t a single character in this show that takes the adage “don’t sleep where you work” to heart, but that’s actually what makes the show great.
Director Michael Engler and screenwriters Josh Berman and Allie Hagan literally don’t miss a beat in establishing the series’ tone and ground rules, opening the pilot episode with a sex scene set to the sparse, lusty throb of Marian Hill’s “Got It.” Recognizable heavy breathing and a ballet of silhouettes give way to an office in a television studio.
The room belongs to Julia George (Piper Perabo), producer of Louise Herrick Live, the top-rated cable TV news show in the country. Julia flips the lights on and quickly collects herself as her boyfriend (a new federal judge) follows suit—the song finishes under a montage of the two of them redressing. “We can’t have sex again… at work,” she says. “Ever.”
Their small talk gives way to a fast-moving sequence simmering atop a blander but no less effective score courtesy of Erick Del Aguila. The kinetic synth melody pushes Julia through the studio as efficient exchanges with a police sergeant, the network president, and his son reveal that nepotism holds this studio afloat.
That, and a dash of hypocrisy. When Julia keys herself into Louise Herrick’s (Kate Jennings Grant) dressing room to nudge her to get ready, she finds the news anchor half-undressed, lounging in a chair with champagne as Imran (Deric Augustine), a chiseled recording artist previously featured on Herrick’s show, sizzles steaks on a portable grill. Julia snaps a hard look at Louise and says, “Come on, Lou. Sex in your office minutes before air? Not okay.” Before Julia can leave, and before the audience can fully digest the irony of the situation, Imran chimes in with a pinch of snark: “Hey, boss lady. How do you like your meat?”
All of this might sound campy, and it is, which might explain some occasionally confusing aesthetic choices. Scenes generally look too bright and sanitized to suit a show that could be renamed Sex, Lies, and Video Production News without a loss in meaning. There’s an odd gloss smeared over most of what fills the screen. It’s unclear if ABC is to blame for this uncanny sunniness in the production value—the House of Mouse owns the network—or if the sheen is meant to reflect the many façades involved in running TV news. Shots often cut between in-universe television screens and the newsworthy action rolling on them, after all. Notorious never lets you forget the importance of capturing a good story.
The show moves at the pace of the studio that dominates much of the action—the action described above all occurs within the pilot’s first two minutes—and shares its general demeanor with its lead character. It’s blunt, stylish, and it doesn’t care too much about waiting for the audience to catch up. Julia George can’t afford to slow down with the country watching, and the show isn’t afraid to look a little silly if that’s the cost of rapidly establishing complex, compelling character relationships. And it’s impressive how much groundwork the writers dare to cram into their first outing.
Conflicts of interest are a journalist’s worst nightmare, but they’re this show’s best friends. When Julia spars with Notorious’ other major player, hotshot attorney Jake Gregorian (Daniel Sunjata), a host of complications bubble up from below the surface. Jake’s got a history of his own, and yes, his and Julia’s banter sometimes skews flirty. “You’re impossible,” she says. “I am so possible,” he says. In this world, if two characters aren’t screwing because they like each other, they’re almost definitely doing it in order to screw each other over.
Perabo and Sunjata jive like a genuine pair of old frenemies, and not just because the writers shove their characters’ similarities down viewers’ throats through overtly mirrored names. Whether you call her conflict and him interest, or call both of them “Scheming JG,” it’s easy to get hooked on their absurdly unethical behavior. That’s largely because the plot, as far-fetched as it might seem at times, always grounds itself in these dubious relationships between characters. In that sense, the show follows the rules of news journalism well. Here the game is explicitly who, what, when, where, why, and how—with extra emphasis on who.
Personal and professional worlds constantly collide in Notorious. Julia and Jake agree that they’ll never lie to each other, but that doesn’t stop them from lying to just about everyone else. Her job is selling the truth; his job is selling the law. They’re power players, and the ethical atom smashing their lives and motives lead them into never feel trite or convoluted. Plenty of the show’s scenarios may raise some eyebrows, but it’s their improbable-but-not-impossible feel that keeps everything engaging. When intimacy is the currency on which people get ahead, it doesn’t take much for a delicate web to come crashing down.
An overly polished aesthetic can’t hide the intrigue in this promising new drama, which features exceptional chemistry between its leads and isn’t afraid to skew toward camp.