But while Scandal relishes the ugly side of politics, its cast suggests an admirable diversity among its power players. Olivia Pope—once a top spokesperson and strategist for the president and still arguably the most powerful woman in Washington—is both African-American and female (her race is never brought up as an issue, leading some critics to call Scandal a "post-racial fantasy"). The diversity trickles down throughout President Grant's team of rivals and the rest of Scandal's universe: Grant's aforementioned gay chief-of-staff, his female vice president (who is also the show's chief antagonist, making Scandal equal opportunist even in its villainy), his female Supreme Court justice pick, a female Attorney General, and a black Senate majority leader.
By comparison, the last "serious" White House drama on network TV, The West Wing, featured a (Democratic) administration that was largely white and male. Only one main female character, C.J. Craig, claimed a top job while the others were relegated to secretary and staffer positions. Charlie, its most prominent African-American, was merely the president's body man.
As critics have noted, last summer's Political Animals made similar strides in depicting diversity—particularly women—in power. But that show failed to gain the audience to be picked up for a second season. Perhaps, Scandal has escaped Political Animals' fate by delivering its political medicine with heaping servings of soap opera-y sugar. Homeland, which also dealt with prickly issues in foreign policy and national security, has many critics worried (myself included) that the show has reached the melodramatic point of no return with the second season's bad-romance-novel storylines.
Scandal will never have to worry about being too sensational to be believable as it has always operated under the pretense of a guilty pleasure, not a civics lesson. If Scandal's second season has proven anything, it's that a show can be at least semi-serious about politics without being a very serious show at all.
Scandal returns Thursday, January 10, at 10 p.m. on ABC.