When Scandal debuted last spring, it had all the hallmarks of a guilty pleasure. Washington power broker Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) ran an operation that felt like a public-relations version of a CBS crime lab, complete with a warehouse headquarters whose huge windows served as a makeshift data-display wall and colleagues who spat out series creator Shonda Rhimes’s trademark “Aaron Sorkin ain’t got nothin’ on me” patter like machine-gun bullets. And of course, like so many drama protagonists, Olivia had a big secret: She’d had an affair with President Fitzgerald “Fitz” Thomas Grant (Tony Goldwyn), and vestiges of their love connection kept bobbing up and down in the show like rotten apples.
It was an enjoyable, nutty series, set in a two-degrees-removed-from-reality world that might have reminded some viewers of Dallas and Dynasty and tawdry gems from an era when nighttime soaps were called “nighttime soaps” and nobody expected much from them besides entertainment. Scandal provided entertainment, and upped the ante with its military-industrial-political conspiracy that gave the proceedings an unusual feel. It satisfied the same melodrama jones as Revenge, but there were times when it had flashes of 24- or Alias-style apocalyptic gloom — that sense that everything and everyone is corrupt to the core, and that the entire civilized world is plummeting to hell in a handcart at Warp Factor 5. In my first review, I compared it to a bag of potato chips.
It’s a TV feast now. Season two is where Scandal went from being an interesting, promising show to a flat-out terrific one. Hell, let’s call it great: to do otherwise would imply that Scandal is innately less respectable than Homeland or The Americans, both of which are good, at times superb shows, and which mix domestic intrigue and political skulduggery so that one feels like an extension of the other. Scandal is the equal of both those series as pure entertainment, and if you can get past the hothouse wildness of Rhimes’s tone — there are really only two modes on Scandal, urgent and EXTREMELY URGENT!!! — it’s just as meaty.
As I wrote in a love letter to season two, Scandal is smarter about race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, and how each of those elements factors into love and work, than almost any series that fancies itself deeper. And yet its gasp-inducing moments — such as Olivia likening her and Fitz’s affair to Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, or the flashbacks pointing out that Fitz is hung up on Olivia partly because she looks out for him in a way that his own parents never did, or the many scenes of the former Black Ops fixer Huck enduring 24-level torture and peeping through windows at the family he lost — are never set apart from the show’s one-damned-thing-after-another plotlines. (The so-called “Defiance arc” in the first part of season two is as potboiler as the best of 24’s coverup scenarios.) Week in and week out, few series satisfy like Scandal. You can call it a guilty pleasure if we agree to strike the “guilty” part.