Unlike with many shows, I can actually name the moment I fell in love with Scandal. It's the most comfortably feminist show on television this side of The Good Wife, and one of the tightest, plottiest thrillers in recent memory. But that's not why I fell in love.
Scandal already earned a certain amount of goodwill from me for its African-American female showrunner and African-American female lead (seriously, when's the last time those conditions happened on their own, let alone in tandem).
But goodwill rarely translates to love. Goodwill's the annoying kid sister of love, or that boy who's so nice to you that you really want to like him, who treats you so superficially well that you stay faithful to him for months on end despite flavorless sex and a deep-seated yet ever-increasing disdain for his total obliviousness to how you really feel about him.
Luckily the show quickly surpassed my highest expectations. Scandal has a secret weapon, a character who reminds us in every appearance that this show is something else: Mellie, the President's not-really-suffering wife.
The first episode suitably introduces the show and the characters, but fail to tell us that the show will be anything more than a higher-stakes political simulacrum of Grey's Anatomy. We learn that our protagonist's one true love is the man she can never have (and by this point, really doesn't want to have). It's funny, it's witty, it's thrilling, etc.
Episode Two turns the show into a thriller (and what a magnificent ride it continues to be). Hints of conspiracy abound, and the audience soon realizes that the emotional stakes of our characters stand small against the stakes of the political mystery (and boy does that mystery build. Rhimes works in one of the most horrifying torture scenes I've ever seen. Like most horrors, what goes unseen is far more disturbing than what's seen).
In episode three, Shonda Rhimes mixes in the special sauce. We learn a little more about Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, whose career's about to explode between this and Django Unchained) and her past relationship with the President. Crucially, a throwaway line, one that whizzes by so quickly that you could easily miss it, reveals that Mellie not only knows about the love affair, but recognizes the role that relationship played in getting her husband elected to the highest office in the land.
There's a love triangle alright, but the President doesn't even figure into it: the unifying arc of the show's about Olivia, Mellie, and the Presidency, and the compromises and realignments they make to make sure that the highest office in the land stays intact, and dare I say it, respectable.
This setup allows Shonda Rhimes to wipe her ass with the Bechdel test over and over again. There's a wife and an ex-lover and they don't even talk about relationships. They talk about their roles in the world as they envision it; protecting Fitz, and by extension, their life's work. Their mutual respect and professional need for cooperation, supersede anything so quotidian as stereotypical female jealousy.
Because these woman are comfortable with who they are and what they want, they also have genuine friendships with the opposite sex. Genuinely platonic relationships, without telegraphed sexual tension, still feel sadly revolutionary in contemporary television.
The best thing of all about the show? It's thematic affirmation that in the real world, there are no white hats. No one really lives on the poles of good and evil. I haven't really talked about the other characters of the show, or the ongoing mystery, but I don't want to spoil you (it's twistier than Revenge).
I'm going to start regularly writing about the show, and I hope more of you give it a chance. The first season is streaming on Netflix, and I recommend it for a rainy day.