Finally repaired, ABC's Thursdays are ready to surprise us (again)

This has been a busy week of new and returning TV shows, but some stories are clearly bigger than others. The biggest is the long-delayed repair of ABC's Thursdays, starting this week (Jan. 26); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

After eight months
of fractured Thursdays, ABC finally seems whole again.

“Scandal” is
back; “Grey's Anatomy” and “How to Get Away With Murder” are
surrounding it. Normality – or s heightened version of it –

The problem started
when “Scandal” took a long break during the pregnancy of its
star, Kerry Washington. It was exasperated by the fact that:

-- Two other Shonda
Rhimes productions weren't ready to fill in. “The Catch” was
being revamped; a period piece was still being prepared.

-- The show that was
shovelled into the “Scandal” spot (“Notorious,” not a Rhimes
production) was truly terrible. Viewers realized that quickly; there
was a giant crater in the middle of ABC's best night.

Now sanity has
returned; “Scandal” is back in time to have 16 episodes this
season, instead of the 21 and 22 in recent years. Shorter seasons are
what cable does ... and what Rhimes says she prefers.

“I spoke to the
network about this,” she said, “wanting to have shorter seasons
.... You don't have to tread water every once in a why .... I think
it actually made our storytelling more powerful.”

She's stuck with
that for “How To Get Away With Murder”; each season has only 15
episodes and two major stories. But “Grey's Anatomy” has 24 a
year, with its huge cast and its ability to tell wide-ranging
stories; indeed, Thursday's episode uses only three of the regulars,
sending them to a prison hospital.

These Rhimes shows
all emphasize human drama and complex roles for women, black and
white. “Murder” and “Scandal” often have a cinematic look and
sudden plot jolts.

The new “Scandal”
season, Rhimes insists, “is not neccesarily about crazy things

You can't prove that
by the opener; starting on election night, it's filled with dizzying
shifts. And you can't prove it by past seasons, which have kept
surprising viewers ... and actors.

“You kind of stare
at Shonda,” said Washington, who stars as Olivia Pope. “We are
always having revelations about ourselves.”

Or about others.
“The viewers are blown away when they watch this on the air – as
are we when we read it,” Scott Foley said. His character has had
two names (Jake Ballard, Pete Harris) and has ranged from master spy
to, currently, vice-presidential candidate. He's been Olivia's lover
and has spied on her.

Foley's favorite
shift involved the mysterious master spy – alternately known as
Command, Rowan and Elijah – played by Joe Morton. “In the car,
when 'Liv sits down with (him), we don't know who he is. And she
says, 'Dad.'”

That one surprised
almost everyone, Morton said. “I was the only one in the entire
cast who knew it was coming. I spent the entire season keeping that

Now more surprises
are ahead, especially in the bizarre season-opener. ABC's fractured
night has finally been repaired.

Thursday line-up
returns Jan. 26 on ABC:

-- “Grey's
Anatomy,” 8 p.m., returning after two months; Bailey, Arizona and
Jo go to a prison, where a teen faces a complicated childbirth.

-- “Scandal,” 9
p.m., season-opener; it's election night.

-- “How to Get
Away With Murder,” 10 p.m.; Annalise, a law professor and master
defense attorney, is in jail, facing charges of arson and possibly