In many ways, Anatomy of a Scandal is the perfect Netflix show. It has the trappings of prestige (with an excellent cast and a well-known co-creator), it’s a quick binge (six hourlong episodes that never push close to the hour mark), and it might even have had something to say about an important issue if it weren’t so thinly drawn. Anatomy lets you congratulate yourself for watching something seemingly dark and provocative, but not something so dark or provocative that you can’t immediately forget it and move on with your day. The ultimate binge and purge.
And that’s a shame, given what Anatomy of a Scandal could be. Instead, it’s a paint-by-numbers thriller that ostensibly investigates the nature of sexual consent without really making us feel invested in any of the characters involved, however well-acted. Based on Sarah Vaughan’s novel of the same name, and adapted by Melissa James Gibson and David E. Kelley, we mostly follow Sophie Whitehouse (Sienna Miller), whose world is thrown upside down when her handsome and successful politician husband, James (Rupert Friend), comes clean about an affair he’s had with a young assistant at work. Sophie is just starting to process this when another bombshell drops: The woman he had the affair with, Olivia (Naomi Scott), has accused James of rape.
Of course James denies it, and his friend—who is also England’s Prime Minister—backs him up. They were old chums at Oxford, you see, part of a social club called the Libertines (naturally), and just when you think there might be some real twisted, psycho-sexual secret society murder stuff happening there… isn’t. They’re just posh pricks.
The case goes to court, with James represented by a sharp defender, Angela (Josette Simon), who we never learn a single thing about except that she has a broken Fitbit. Prosecuting the case is another extremely good attorney named Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery), and we know she’s good because the show tells us that repeatedly in the first ten minutes of the first episode. But there is no time to spend with them on a deeper level when there are predictable twists to reveal! (There is also no time, apparently, for objections, which an American trial would have been filled with during these kangaroo court proceedings.)
Anatomy of a Scandal first wants to say something about consent, maybe, but also dabbles in ideas of privilege. Not enough to really rile anyone’s feathers, but just enough to make you think briefly about the general injustice of it all. It’s careful to not make its flashbacks too salacious or too brutal, and director S. J. Clarkson occasionally tries to augment the court scenes and conversations with some experimental camera angles and surrealist interpretations of the emotions of the leads. These never go anywhere and are little more than a distraction from what is otherwise a very bland show that hints at something worthwhile but never gets there. (For a far better study of a similar injustice, watch Unbelievable—also on Netflix).
By the time the final resolution comes—which it thankfully does, even though undoubtedly Netflix will turn this into an ill-advised anthology of some kind—it’s completely hollow. Despite the genuinely good cast, the easily bingeable formula, and enough breadcrumbs laid out to make it seem like it’s going somewhere interesting, the show ultimately just… exists. Pretty, rich people frown and fret and ultimately agree (save one) that justice in sexual assault cases is rarely served. Several characters deserved so much more. But the tenor of Anatomy of a Scandal is not tuned to that. It’s meant for everyone to nod together and sigh, and hit Play Next.
Anatomy of a Scandal premieres Friday, April 15th on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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