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The style of Netflix’s Anatomy of a Scandal suggests a certain type of show — the sort of twisty, pulpy thriller that wears the adjective “trashy” as a compliment.
The premiere episode opens with a purposely blurry scene of two people apparently caught up in the throes of passion, and ends with the fantastical flourish of a man literally being blown backwards by the force of his own shock. Pop open a bottle of wine, and its six 45-minute episodes make for an ideal weekend binge.
Anatomy of a Scandal
Airdate: Friday, April 15 (Netflix)
Cast: Sienna Miller, Michelle Dockery, Rupert Friend, Naomi Scott
Creators: David E. Kelley, Melissa James Gibson
Or they would, except that Anatomy of a Scandal often seems to think it’s a completely different kind of show — a searing, sobering examination of rape, consent and privilege. And while it’s certainly possible for a series to feel both fun and weighty at the same time (as with 2020’s I May Destroy You, which also centered on sexual assault), Anatomy of a Scandal struggles to thread the needle between these two impulses, resulting in a show that’s unsatisfying as either a lurid thriller or a serious drama.
Anatomy of a Scandal is not based on a single true story, but on a novel by Sarah Vaughan that seems to be pulling from countless true stories, seen in headline after headline. A prominent British politician, James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), is reported to have carried on an affair with one of his aides, the much younger Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott). Initially, the news looks like little more than a stain on his picture-perfect façade — embarrassing, but not disastrous. His wife, Sophie (Sienna Miller), vows to stand by him, bolstering him privately and publicly through her own hurt and rage.
Then the story takes the first of many big turns when Olivia accuses James not just of having sex with her, but of raping her. The case makes its way to court — where James faces prosecutor Kate Woodcraft (Michelle Dockery), who seems utterly determined to bring James to justice, for reasons of her own that she’s loath to admit.
Most of Anatomy of a Scandal is set during James’ trial, and the question of whether he will be found guilty hangs over the series to its final minutes. But creators Melissa James Gibson and David E. Kelley have more on their mind than whether James did it. The series incorporates flashbacks not only to James’ earlier interactions with Olivia (including consensual sexual encounters) but to the early days of James and Sophie’s courtship at Oxford, laying out the larger patterns of power and entitlement that have defined his entire life, and the lives of everyone else around him.
At times, this makes Anatomy of a Scandal feel like a think piece in narrative drama form, to the point that the characters themselves seem to be analyzing their own behavior through that lens — as when Sophie reflects aloud on the “blurriness of consent,” and wonders about her and her female classmates’ complicity in acquiescing to the “selfish exuberance” of the men around them.
But Anatomy of a Scandal does not seem to have much new to add to the conversation. In place of meaningful insight, it offers flashy stylistic tricks, courtesy of director S.J. Clarkson. The camera tilts and twirls around its subjects, or parks itself at disorienting Dutch angles. Emotional experiences are made literal, so that we don’t just watch Sophie imagine seeing James and Olivia in the elevator together; we watch her watch them in the elevator together, even though she wasn’t actually there.
This approach can be effective, especially when it comes to the way it frames the characters’ recollections: Memories change depending on who’s telling the story, or blur with the details of other stories, or intrude on the present in particularly intense moments. Mostly, though, these extravagances serve to juice up the drama. They turn what might be a quiet moment of epiphany on a tamer series into a world-rocking reveal, or prime the audience for still more bombshells to come.
To the extent that the series draws us in, much of the credit goes to the actors — particularly Dockery and Miller, who manage to find something raw and human among the show’s most ridiculous excesses as two women pushed to emotional extremes by the pressures of the case. (Friend’s role is necessarily more of a cipher, but he lands on an appropriate balance between smooth and slimy.)
As for Scott, she does well enough with the material she’s given, but she’s given hardly any material at all. Despite being the victim whose account sets the rest of the story in motion, Olivia’s perspective on events is almost entirely limited to her testimony, and the character disappears from the story fairly early on. It’s an odd and ultimately timid choice that allows the show to have its cake and eat it, too — to indulge in the steaminess of Olivia and James’ affair or the cool competence of Kate’s work in the courtroom or its own high-minded diatribes about privilege, while largely glossing over the ugliness of the alleged incident or its impact on the individual most affected by it.
In its pursuit of big drama located inside an even bigger picture, Anatomy of a Scandal sacrifices intimacy and nuance. Its choices pay off in the sense that the series is never boring — it’s watchable through and through, if partly because it’s short enough that it’s easy to stick around just to see how it ends. But they also stop the series from going anywhere truly thoughtful, let alone daring or provocative. If James Whitehouse’s story is one that echoes so many others we’ve heard before, so too is much of what Anatomy of a Scandal has to say about it.
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