After five seasons, the fast-talking self-named "gladiators" of "Scandal" have lost some of their magic for me. The speedy monologues with their peculiar cadence that were as fresh as Olivia Pope's (Kerry Washington) crisp white suits are so expected now that they feel like the kind of background music you play when you want to concentrate on something else. But the reason I'm still watching and you should be too is that this season is posing the most interesting what if question in series television: What if the President of the United States publicly embraced his mistress? If you're going to call a show "Scandal," you might as well swing for the fences and that's what this season is doing with great results.
The biggest scandal on "Scandal" of course, is Olivia and Fitz's (Tony Goldwyn) love affair, which until now has been portrayed in the standard way--steamy flings in dark corners, lies, close calls, declarations that it's all over before running back into each other's arms. Mellie (Bellamy Young), the first lady, wronged as she is by the affair, is also obsessed with power and makes her life choices accordingly. It's a characterization that allows her to be sympathetic and unlikeable simultaneously and Young pulls it off every season. Mellie's reaction to her husband's long running betrayal has resembled the seven stages of grief with variations on anger, denial, bargaining, acceptance etc. but this season's premise has set a different stage and anger is just the beginning. Mellie wants complete destruction. It's an entertaining answer to the 'what if' question.
The other answers to that controversial question, whatever they might be, are a smart narrative strategy that not only satisfies the Olivia/Fitz romance fans but also moves the story past the typical will they...type set-up to the far more interesting what happens when they come clean scenario. There are plenty of opportunities for melodrama to creep in but "Scandal" is a clever show that for the most part, avoids the pitfalls of soap opera and instead tackles more contemporary debates. In one scene, a character makes a reference to Olivia's race by suggesting that the president's mistress should be more "palatable" to his political base. Olivia also struggles with the harsh realities of what the public revelation means to her identity and independence.
The choice to explore what it would look like if a married president publicly admitted to loving another woman gives "Scandal's" writers more room to expand upon the central motif of the series. Now that the fixer has to fix her own scandal, how will that impact her personal and professional life? The verbal gymnastics are tiring (and let's not forget the ridiculous storyline involving Huck (Guillermo Diaz) slaughtering a busload of innocent people with no consequences) but the series is feeling sharp again. This is a show that takes the personal is political idea literally but kept it behind closed doors. Now that the secret's out, the series is better for it.
"Scandal" is on Thursdays at 9 p.m. EDT on ABC.
Melissa Crawley is the author of "Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.' " She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.