When "Scandal" debuted last spring, its premise seemed clear-cut and comfortable.
This latest melodrama from Shonda Rhimes ("Grey's Anatomy," ''Private Practice") starred Kerry Washington as boss of a Beltway crisis management firm that fixes sticky problems for the D.C. high and mighty.
Clearly, Olivia Pope was well-connected: She had been the communications director to the president of the United States and, before that, helped put Fitzgerald Grant in the White House.
But a certain scandalous detail gave the show a surprise punch: Olivia and Fitz had been locked in a torrid love affair since the campaign, right under the nose of his first lady and the rest of the nation.
For the Grant Administration, this could mean big problems — the sort of problems Olivia Pope is typically retained to fix, not play a role in creating.
Meanwhile, it's a blessing for Tony Goldwyn, who plays the smitten chief executive.
"When I was signed for the show, Shonda indicated that she had big plans for Fitz and Olivia," says Goldwyn, "but you never know."
He knows now. So does the addicted, often flabbergasted "Scandal" audience.
The juicy saga (airing Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern on ABC) has this season found Olivia and Fitz ever more deliciously and dangerously entwined.
Fitz survived an assassination attempt plotted by a Supreme Court Justice (who Fitz paid back by killing her). He resolved to dump his wife and wed Olivia, no matter the political fallout. Then he found out what the viewer had earlier been shocked to learn: Olivia and other supporters of Fitz conspired to rig the vote for an election he would likely have lost otherwise. President Grant discovers his victory was stolen for him, and that Olivia played a part in stealing it.
"I'm so grateful the show has gone where it's gone," says Goldwyn, savoring the problems dogging Fitz's presidency. "It's beyond my wildest expectations."
The crazy thing about "Scandal" is that, however outrageous its story line, the characters (including Olivia's hard-charging team of crisis managers and Fitz's tainted deputies) are fully formed, believable and appealing.
Certainly that's the case with Fitz, who, as portrayed by Goldwyn, is charismatic, statesmanlike and (in scenes with Olivia) sizzling hot.
Now 52, Goldwyn first caught the public's eye as Patrick Swayze's villainous best friend in the box office smash, "Ghost." He went on to appear in "The Pelican Brief," Oliver Stone's "Nixon," ''The Last Samurai," and as astronaut Neil Armstrong in the HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon."
Among his stage appearances was a starring role in the 2010 Broadway revival of the hit musical "Promises, Promises."
"On 'Scandal,'" he says, "I wanted to avoid playing a generic TV president. And I wanted Fitz to be a modern president, so I spent a lot of time watching Clinton and Obama, who have this ability to connect with people. I saw Fitz as a Republican Obama who is very purpose-driven and wants to get beyond party politics.
"And, of course, he's got a very complicated personal life," adds Goldwyn with a hearty chuckle.
"The saving grace for the character is that Fitz is desperately in love with Olivia, and she with him. It isn't just a dalliance. And whatever bad behavior he exhibits — and there's a lot of it — he's always competent in his job. That's priority No. 1. If Fitz were to fall down on the job, I think you'd lose the audience like that," he says with a snap of his fingers.
No profile of Tony Goldwyn can fail to mention the film dynasty he springs from. His grandfather was the legendary mogul Samuel Goldwyn, a party to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio empire whose films included "Wuthering Heights," ''The Best Years of Our Lives" and "Guys and Dolls."
His father, Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., is a successful producer as well (with credits that include "Mystic Pizza" and "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"), but who was careful to shield Tony and his other kids from the Hollywood glitter he had been raised in: "He really wanted to make sure we weren't Hollywood brats," says Tony, who witnessed only one film production as a child: an episode of "The Night Stalker" being shot at Dad's studio.
"That was the only set I was ever on until I started working on them myself as an adult," Goldwyn says.
By then bitten by the acting bug, he found work for several years on episodic TV.
Then came "Ghost," the romantic fantasy that became the highest-grossing film of 1990.
"Suddenly, after all the struggling, I was in this huge hit, and I didn't know what to do next," Goldwyn recalls. "I realized: You can't control your career, what opportunities come your way, what happens in the marketplace."
Eventually, that sense of uncertainty led Goldwyn to seek control in other ways. He produced and directed the acclaimed 1999 drama "A Walk on the Moon," starring Diane Lane and Viggo Mortensen. In 2010, he directed Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell in "Conviction." Along the way, he has directed TV dramas including "Dexter," ''Damages," ''Justified" and, later this season, he plans to add "Scandal" to the list.
"Directing takes the pressure off as an actor," he explains, allowing him to be more selective in the acting roles he takes. With that, he shares his criteria for which acting jobs he accepts: Does the material interest him and can he do something with it? Who else is involved that he might like to work with? How much does it pay?
"If an offer satisfies any two of these three, I'll take it," he says.
So which two conditions does "Scandal" satisfy?
"It's a trifecta," he replies hastily. "Thank God, this really is a dream job!"
Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier