HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- When ABC's "Scandal" began last spring, it was a relatively unbelievable drama about Washington fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, "Django Unchained"), her cases and her affair with U.S. President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn, "Ghost").
Since then the plots have escalated to outright bonkers, with a presidential assassination attempt and the revelation that Olivia and other Grant advisers rigged the election so he could win the presidency. Viewers seem to be eating this cheese like it's delicious warmed brie.
Ratings are up, with the most recent original episode on Jan. 17 winning its hour in both total viewers and the adults 18-49 demo beloved by advertisers. That week the show also reached new series highs in adults 18-34 and women 18-34.
The episode saw Grant awaken from his assassination attempt coma, revealed the extent of Olivia's participation in the vote-rigging, and culminated in Grant asking first lady Mellie (Bellamy Young) for a divorce.
For the show's lead actress, "Scandal" scripts are met with "shock and awe" -- and sometimes tears.
"When I read [the last episode], I burst into tears on the way to work and called [executive producer] Shonda [Rhimes] and said, 'Can we talk about this? I'm worried and concerned and shocked,' " Ms. Washington said on the set earlier this month. "The very end, reading Olivia's decision [in the flashback to rig the election] and how it came about. I ultimately trust my showrunner and I'm so inspired by Shonda and her commitment to make all these characters human beings. Everyone is not all-good, not all-bad. They live in gray areas and are trying to do the best they can."
Viewers may see some of the fallout from those past actions in this week's new episode at 10 p.m. Thursday on WTAE.
Ms. Washington, who has campaigned for President Barack Obama in the past, said Beltway wonks respond positively to the show.
"I would never say we're being over-the-top," she said. "But they know the show is not a documentary."
She's also quick to point out a key difference between the White House administration on "Scandal" and in real-world Washington.
"Well, it's a Republican administration [on the show], remember, that's very important to keep in mind," Ms. Washington said, noting that the show's writers consult with Judy Smith, a co-executive producer on the series and inspiration for Olivia. Ms. Smith founded a crisis management firm in D.C. and worked in the White House for President George H.W. Bush. "They don't base the show on things currently going on or things that happened in the Bush years when Judy was there. They try to come up with the most outlandish, scandalous ideas and say to Judy, 'What would you do?' "
For "Scandal" co-star Joshua Malina, who plays assistant U.S. attorney David Rosen, this drama is also a far cry from his experience in another fictional White House, on NBC's "The West Wing."
"They're in some ways two sides of a coin," Mr. Malina said. "One is definitely exaggerated, and the dark side. More happens in an episode of 'Scandal' than in many seasons of other shows. Whereas 'West Wing' was there are people who do this, and they accomplish good things and they have noble purposes and it may be difficult and there's a lot to slog through and I had this little civics lesson. This is the flip side. And I think probably the truth of D.C. lies down the middle between these two shows."
But it's the crazy of "Scandal" that's getting a lot of attention these days.
"There are a couple of huge moments where it's like, 'No, really!?' How are you going to buy that back?" Mr. Malina said. "And I'm constantly impressed by Shonda and the writing staff because they figure out a way to go on, and I feel like in its way it's subversive and sly and risky to take your heroes and to go, well, they're doing some stuff that is not so nice."
And for viewers who tune in because the show is fun precisely because it's unbelievable? Mr. Malina is fine with that.
"Sure, I'm comfortable with bonkers," he said. "That being said, I know there are also people who buy into the characters deeply. ... You can kind of take it as seriously as you choose to."
Ms. Rhimes may be less comfortable with viewers who tune in to "Scandal" for the comedy, some of it unintended.
"I'm OK with loving the show for any reason they want to as long as they don't say that it's a guilty pleasure," she said. "When you call a show a guilty pleasure, basically you're saying that it's crap but I can't stop watching it."
She said the goal was never to be 100 percent realistic, which is good because "Scandal" definitely is not realistic by any stretch of the imagination.
"I feel like we wanted to be a little high drama, a little Shakespearean if we could, in the sense of what the characters were up to and what they were doing," Ms. Rhimes said while seated on a sofa in a room outside the show's oval office set. "We debate a lot of facts, whether or not something is too far outside the bounds of something for us to do or whether it's OK. The thing I think is interesting is how much people are like, 'That's ridiculous,' and we're holding the newspaper article that's either 'This is what happened' or 'This is what 50 people believe happened' or here's a documentary where somebody believed this thing.
"It was interesting to us that we did the whole election stealing thing, and then the article came out about the current election and how everybody thought the Republicans were trying to steal votes in Ohio because the Republican candidate in Ohio owned the company that owned the voting machines," she continued. "That happened after we wrote the story, but we were like, wow. More often than not our stories come from something we saw or inspired by something we saw in the paper or I'll call up Judy and I'll go like, 'You don't have to tell me if this really happened, but could it have happened? Can you blink once if it's possible?' And so we take stuff from real life all the time. Sometimes it sounds too crazy to be true and sometimes it doesn't."
A version of this story first appeared in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.