‘Scandal’ and Olivia/Fitz as the best/worst couple of them all

“Scandal” – Shonda Rhimes’ delightfully insane drama about Washington, DC fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), her team of crisis managers, and the President of the United States (Tony Goldwyn) with whom she’s been having an on-again, off-again affair for years – is back for a third season tonight at 10 on ABC. I’ve seen the premiere, and it’s very strong, as it deals with the fallout from Olivia and Fitz’s relationship being leaked to the media, and from the revelation – which would be absurd on many a “serious” drama but which works just fine here – that Joe Morton’s shady intelligence boss is actually Olivia’s estranged father. (Morton and Washington share a scene early in the premiere that’s dynamite, and not just because it’s one of the few moments in the run of the show that so much as alludes to Olivia’s race and the complications it causes in this situation.)

I’m very happy to have the show back, and I’m looking forward to Liane Bonin Starr’s weekly coverage of it at her Starr Raving blog. But before the premiere, I wanted to discuss the Olivia and Fitz of it all.

Earlier today, my friend Linda Holmes published a very funny list of the rules of “Scandal,” starting with this one:

Fitz is the worst. Okay, you know that already. But you should assume that everything Fitz does (he’s the president, you see) has various ulterior motives, mostly relating to feeling sorry for himself. If Fitz donated a kidney, it would be for the tax deduction.

She is not wrong, in my opinion. Fitz is a bad guy, and clearly was long before he murdered a dying old woman. But what’s fascinating about “Scandal” is how virtually everyone – with the possible exception of Josh Malina as U.S. Attorney David Rosen – is a black hat at this point. The only real differences between the characters are who feels bad about what they do, who remains in complete denial of their badness, and who (notably Jeff Perry as Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene and Bellamy Young as First Lady Mellie Grant) accepts their inner monster.

By making most of the ensemble into villains of varying degrees, Rhimes has liberated herself from a lot of the usual conventions of network TV drama. But what I find really interesting about “Scandal,” particularly as Olivia/Fitz moves to the forefront again with the premiere, is how it works against the familiar romantic tropes that Rhimes has played with for years on “Grey’s Anatomy” and the late “Private Practice.”

On one level, Olivia and Fitz aren’t that different from Meredith Grey and Dr. McDreamy in the early years of “Grey’s”: star-crossed lovers, forever being kept apart by circumstance, prior obligations and cruel twists of fate. But it was always clear that those two were meant to be together, and once the show finally paired them off for good, they’ve been (with an occasional but realistic bump here and there) a functional, healthy and happy couple. I never much cared about their romantic destiny, but I understood why so many did, and it made sense within the greater context of the show.

Olivia and Fitz, on the other hand, are toxic individuals who bring out the worst in each other, and yet they remain oblivious to this, and the attitude of Rhimes and the creative team remains tricky to read. Other characters like Cyrus get to speak to the idea that things can never work out between them, nor should they, but those speeches are often presented in a villainous context, while Washington in particular is often asked to play Olivia/Fitz scenes with a very sincere level of romantic yearning.

When I interviewed Rhimes midway through last season, she dismissed Meredith/Derek comparisons to Olivia and Fitz, saying, “We didn’t start out a show in which we said, ‘These two people are meant to be together and happily ever after, and that’s going to be the end of our happy little movie.’ Nobody ever said we were singing a happy tune here. So I think it’s a different animal.” Later, she added, “This is not your cute, sweet, adorable relationship. But I think it is a complex, interesting, very adult one, that is based in something that is not necessarily wholesome or right.”

So she’s definitely aware of the complexities, and perhaps the outright destructiveness of the relationship. And in the show’s audience, there are people like Linda who view Olivia and Fitz as the worst couple in the world, but also many viewers who are watching primarily because they want to see things work out between those crazy lovebirds. And that’s a tricky balance to deal with. Olivia believes this is the great love of her life. Many of her fans do. But other people, both on the show and in the audience, understandably see this entire thing as a catastrophe the show’s heroine can’t identify.

“Scandal” is a fun show filled with terrific performances and a very confident sense of narrative momentum. As a viewer, I look forward to watching it for a long time. As a critic, I want to see how long Rhimes can maintain this Rorschach test quality to the show’s central romantic relationship, where both the characters and the audience see in what they want to, and are perfectly happy with how that interpretation fits with events around it.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com