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'Scandal' is full of guilty pleasures

"Scandal," on my scorecard, was the best broadcast network show of the past season.

By far.

Its first season ended Thursday night, and ABC promises it will be back. As Robert Browning might have been moved to reiterate (if he'd been a 21st century couch potato), God's in his heaven, all's right with the world.

With all of that, let me confess to a reservation or two about the only new show in a long while to have some of the richer and rarer pleasures that network TV has offered in the post-cable era.

As Shonda Rhimes' new series wound down to its season finale, the presidential dalliance with the now-dead (and formerly pregnant) intern was publicly revealed by the resident cobra on the vice presidential staff. As an entirely separate matter, it had already been revealed to viewers at home as an unusually slimy long-term tactic to discredit the president, who was, apparently, not behaving the way 21st century Republicans are supposed to.

My big reservation? The show, as it now stands, is awfully full of plot.

Hey, it happens. Almost always, in fact. You can't keep a series going with one continuous storyline unless that storyline starts taking all kinds of sharp turns, lunatic dips and crazy curlicues all over the narrative landscape. Some of them, as we all know, are going to change locomotion and come dangerously close to the proverbial TV shark jump.

Don't worry. "Scandal" isn't even close to that.

It's still one heck of a TV show -- so good that its ethnic singularity in prime time is escaping general notice. It's a bit of praise that the show is way too good to need.

It's true, nevertheless, that its creator and show-runner Rhimes is a rarity in being black, but as Emily Nussbaum points out in her less-smitten review of "Scandal" in the current New Yorker, "Scandal" is the first network dramatic show to feature a black actress -- Kerry Washington -- in the lead since "Get Christie Love" starred Teresa Graves in a long-gone era (1974 to be exact) when Blaxploitation queen Pam Grier, fresh from making "Coffy," starred as "Foxy Brown" at the movies.

I'm willing to put up with all that careening plot so far and come back for more besides. We are, as a species, dependent on stories to understand the universe. And the basic question of all stories -- what happens next -- is what will always keep us hooked.

But what wowed me about "Scandal" from the opening minutes of its pilot episode was its cast's ability to negotiate its lightning fast and virtuosic screwball comedy dialogue.

The show's great moment came when the president's chief of staff sat in despair on an Oval Office couch and eloquently proceeded to lay out all that could well happen to a president and his place in history once he was removed from office because of an overexercised zipper.

That chief of staff was played by Jeff Perry, who spent his years on Don Johnson's likable throwaway "Nash Bridges" as a funky dude in loud Hawaiian shirts and too many layers for the weather.

In his early life as a real actor, Perry was one of the founders -- with Gary Sinise and, later, John Malkovich -- of Chicago's fabled Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which means that he, Sinise and Malkovich all know what to do with a big, meaty chunk of dialogue that has been seasoned to the max with wit, wisdom and dramatic pepper.

And that Perry proves as he had never before done on network TV. The scene was a great moment for both the actor and the series.

As the star of "Scandal," Washington plays Olivia Pope, a Washington lawyer and "fixer" who was in the president's innermost circle during his campaign and is now the go-to woman for everyone in Washington whose troubles are way too big for ordinary schlubs to handle.

Think of George Clooney's Michael Clayton in the 2007 movie of the same name. Change gender and color and pride in her profession, and you've got Washington's Olivia Pope.

Or, you might think of something in the news right now: the Corasanti trial, in which a prominent physician, instead of pleading out in a hit-and-run fatality, is taking his case to trial with two attorneys even more prominent than he was -- Joel L. Daniels and Thomas H. Burton.

To those who may think that fanatic attention to this trial in the local news media has been overdone and is somehow beneath the mission of all forms of journalism, my question might be "What on earth are you talking about?"

Journalists, at root, are in the business of telling stories, too. And that "what happens next" factor in the trial of Dr. James Corasanti is immense. It may well be true, as lawyers have said elsewhere, that Corasanti's appeal, in the event of a conviction, may rest on grounds that, like Dr. Sam Sheppard in Cleveland in the 1950s, news coverage made a fair trial impossible.

It seems to me that the local media have been as scrupulous as humanly possible all the way through the Corasanti trial. Whatever the jury decides, the story has been told with extraordinary care. TV can't help the way Corasanti looks in courtroom close-ups.

Granted, the Corasanti trial doesn't have, for local news consumers, a fraction of the attendant issues the O.J. Simpson trial had nationally -- race, sex, sports and fame most notably among them. But it has a local version of a powerhouse defense team and one powerhouse issue for all of us that should interest any local consumer of journalism of any sort: privilege, and the relationship of justice to the quality of legal representation one can afford.

The minute that is no longer a suitable subject for massive reportage, we may all be in a heap of trouble.

And no "fixer" will be able to help us.