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‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ Review: A Cheesy Drama That Fails to Engage with Tough Subject Matter

Despite a starry cast, this Netflix adaptation of a bestselling book fails to add anything new to a complicated subject.

Episodic of 'Anatomy of a Scandal'

“Anatomy of a Scandal”

With the creators of “Big Little Lies” and “House of Cards” at the helm, “Anatomy of a Scandal” should have been an absolute slam dunk. The Netflix limited series, developed by David E. Kelley and Melissa James Gibson, had the potential to be part thriller, part courtroom drama, and full (as the title would suggest) of scandal. Instead, it’s a soap opera burdened by clunky handling of sensitive subject matter.

We begin our story in London, with happily married couple Sophie and James Whitehouse (Sienna Miller and Rupert Friend). James is a member of parliament and a close friend to Prime Minister Tom Southern (Geoffrey Streatfield), while Sophie supports him and cares for their two children. Their lives appear perfect until news breaks of an affair James had with a younger coworker, Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott). He tells Sophie it meant nothing, that it ended recently, and that he made a mistake. She’s understandably upset, but believes him. So begin the attempts to apologize to the public and theoretically get back to business as usual.

However, what could have been a blip of a scandal on the political radar escalates exponentially when Olivia accuses James of rape. What follows is a media circus, a trial, and a whole lot of poorly executed melodrama. The latter is glaringly obvious throughout the show, including when police first inform James of Olivia’s accusation. Without warning, James is flung backward in slow motion — yes, really — like some disembodied hand of justice has punched him into next episode. It’s a Big Choice, albeit somewhat understandable: James’ world has turned upside down, after all. However, to totally break reality in this way after such a weighty revelation is to cheapen the moment. The scene verges on funny, but it comes at a time when viewers should absolutely not be laughing.

“Anatomy of a Scandal” continues to toy with reality in order to make important moments land. Almost exactly one episode after James’ accusation, Sophie experiences a similar gravity-defying reaction to shocking news. Again, it’s a Big Choice, and again, it doesn’t work tone-wise with what came before it.

The only time when the gimmick comes close to being effective is during James’ trial, when prosecutor Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery) asks Olivia to recall aspects of the affair and assault. Occasionally, Olivia in the past will answer Kate’s questions as if she’s in the present, blurring the timelines. It makes sense, given that Olivia is reliving her trauma. Unfortunately, the gimmick overstays its welcome when it’s James’s turn to take the stand. Most viewers would likely rather watch a rape scene once or not at all than have it repeated several times, as it is here, including a disturbing few minutes from the point of view of the perpetrator.

Episodic of Michelle Dockery on 'Anatomy of a Scandal'

“Anatomy of a Scandal”

Doubly unfortunate is the fact that while Olivia has accused James of rape, we see nothing of that character outside the flashbacks or the trial. The show defines Olivia solely in relationship to James, even though she is equally affected by this “scandal” and faces repercussions in her own life. Scott does the best with what she’s given — all the performances are fine, considering the material — but it’s a glaring oversight that Olivia seemingly disappears once she leaves the courtroom. “Anatomy of a Scandal” is based on the bestselling novel by Sarah Vaughan, which also barely touches on Olivia. The great thing about adaptations, however, is that they can change the source material’s shortcomings in ways that will make for better television — “Anatomy of a Scandal” declined to do that.

Enough about what we didn’t see. What about what we do see? “Anatomy of a Scandal” focuses mostly on Sophie as she processes her husband’s infidelity and tries to understand how the man she knew could be an accused rapist. Between this and Kate’s prosecution of James we are party to several conversations about consent. Other series like “I May Destroy You” have dealt more thoughtfully with consent than “Anatomy of a Scandal,” which awkwardly retreads talking points we’ve seen before, including the rapist’s upsetting assertion that their victim really wanted sex.

“Anatomy of a Scandal” also attempts to interrogate how James’ privilege as a straight white male politician affects his trial. All this really amounts to is characters throwing around the word “privilege” a lot and Kate asking the jury to set aside their prior conceptions of James. The show doesn’t pry much deeper than that. Instead, it chooses to elicit its main shock and awe not from a thoughtful consideration of difficult subject matter, but from a series of flashbacks and unbelievable story pivots.

Running parallel to James’ trial are his and Sophie’s recollections of their romance at Oxford. These memories bring up secrets that threaten to ruin James’s reputation even further, including a plot twist so ridiculous and so jarring that it’s nearly impossible to concentrate on anything else for the show’s remaining episodes. No spoilers here, but trust us, it’s a doozy.

Equally jarring is the camerawork and cinematography of these flashbacks. “Anatomy of a Scandal” pulls every trick in the book to make you uncomfortable, from frenetic camera movement to choppy cuts to distorted lenses. Unfortunately, it all comes across as uninspired. The same extends to scenes taking place in the present, which over-rely on Dutch angles to sell dramatic moments. Miller, Dockery, and Friend are all good actors — they can sell the emotion of a scene without the help of a constantly tilted camera. Other choices, like the incorporation of a breathy exhale into the show’s soundscape, do little to counteract the feeling that “Anatomy of a Scandal” is leaning far too hard on clichés we’ve seen in better thrillers.

Despite all this, “Anatomy of a Scandal” is by no means completely unwatchable. The whole intrigue of a courtroom drama lies in whether the client is declared innocent or guilty: If nothing else, you’ll want to see how James’s trial ends. But with all its squabbles, over-the-top drama, and borderline cheesy filmmaking choices, “Anatomy of a Scandal” most resembles a soap opera you’d watch in order to have something on in the background. But the ultra-serious subject matter make it an impossible mindless watch. The final viewing experience is infuriating, frustrating, and ultimately unfulfilling. You’ll wish you had watched either of its creators’ earlier, better shows instead.

Grade: C-

“Anatomy of a Scandal” premieres Friday, April 15 on Netflix.

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