Scandal, which returns from its winter break Thursday night, never behaved like a show that was serious about politics. Following the trials and triumphs of Olivia Pope, a high-profile D.C. crisis manager who is having an affair with the president, it touts all the ingredients of a primtetime soap: a beautiful cast, outlandish plotlines, snappy dialogue, and flashy scene changes. While Scandal's first season seemingly portrayed Washington as nothing more than a backdrop for steamy Oval Office sex scenes, its second season has sharpened its focus on political realities.
Many Washington locals may roll their eyes at Scandal's dubious conspiracies, overwrought mysteries, and a D.C. climate that is perpetually sunny (the show is actually filmed in Los Angeles). But at the very least, the show has started acknowledging that politics, in fact, sometimes occur in the White House, folding governance and partisan power-plays into its melodramatics.
Scandal's second season began with President Fitzgerald Grant struggling to take a stand on civil war in East Sudan, a Syria-esque humanitarian situation that has raised calls for U.S. intervention. As the season throttled forward, controversies that were more policy-oriented than their first season predecessors emerged: An alleged government conspiracy to spy on its citizens touched on privacy issues; slimy oil lobbyist twisted arms for favorable energy legislation; and a massive election fraud operation conducted by the president's campaign is now poised to see the light of day. The previews for this season's second act suggest torture will be the next stone unturned by Pope & Associates, as one of Olivia's colleagues is detained and falsely accused of an assassination attempt on the president.
Of course, each of these plotlines is more outrageous and far-fetched than the last, and come amidst the more frivolous business of congressional sex scandals, disgruntled boyfriends, and CIA spies gone wild. But their existence—in addition to the racy twists and turns that dominated Season 1—signals that Scandal is willing to at least dip into such contentious matters, shifting the focus from Olivia's attempts to clean up her clients' PR messes to the political issues that create the messes in the first place.
It may seem obvious that a show set in Washington about a political "fixer," her president boyfriend, and his administration would deal with actual politics—albeit a fantastical version of them. But consider this: Contemporaries of Scandal also set in the capital's political chambers have gone out of their way to avoid talking about politics. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, star and co-producer of the cynical HBO satire Veep, said her title character's political party will never be revealed. Jon Lovett, writer and co-creator the new NBC family comedy 1600 Penn also said his show wouldn't be diving into partisan politics. Even Parks and Recreation's jaunts in Washington this season were notably bipartisan in nature—or at least in its cameo selections.
In Scandal's first season, any policy issues was merely white noise to the louder, sexier gossip at hand—President Grant's Republican Party affiliation was an afterthought, mentioned when his chief of staff cracked jokes about being a gay man in a GOP administration. In the second season, the exact political contours of President Grant's administration have crystallized. He is a moderate Republican who had to bring on a hard-right evangelical as vice president to woo Christian conservatives, who in turn, is enraged that the president appointed a liberal justice to the Supreme Court.
Furthermore, Scandal makes plot fodder out of the pettier, partisan nature of politics. As a favor to Olivia, the president endorses one Democrat so that his party rival (who happens to be Olivia's new beau) is anointed Senate majority leader, illustrating how one party will do exactly the opposite of what the other party's leader asks them to do.
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.