Anatomy of a Scandal is not afraid to take big risks. Like so many other David E. Kelly-produced and -written productions, the new Netflix series is largely a courtroom drama. However, despite its relatively grounded tone and serious subject matter, Anatomy of a Scandal doesn’t shy away from attempting the kind of elaborate visual moments that turn its characters’ world upside down or, in one instance, show them falling in slow-motion into empty courtrooms.
The problem is that many of the visual and narrative risks the series takes are misguided at best and irritating at worst. Anatomy of a Scandal wants its viewers to not just feel but see everything its characters are mentally and emotionally experiencing on a moment-to-moment basis. Rather than relying on the strength of its material and actors, many of whom turn in strong work here, the series tries to come up with a million ways to hit its points home as hard as it possibly can.
It’s difficult not to feel like you’ve been hit overthe head by the time everything is said and done. The series, which is based on a novel by Sarah Vaughan, fails to deliver any of the subtlety or nuance its subject matter demands.
When Anatomy of a Scandal begins, James (Rupert Friend) and Sophie Whitehouse (Sienna Miller) are a picture-perfect couple. He’s a popular Minister in the British parliament, which means he, Sophie, and their children all live excessively privileged lifestyles. However, their lives are thrown into disarray when it is not only revealed that James has been carrying on an affair with one of his assistants, Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott), but that she has formally accused him of raping her.
Her accusation earns Olivia the legal support of Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery), a skilled and intelligent barrister who sets her sights on putting James away for his alleged crimes. Sophie, meanwhile, is forced to look at her husband’s personality and past actions in a new light. What follows is a story that alternates between being a courtroom thriller, domestic melodrama, and overly convoluted mystery, but is always anchored by Anatomy of a Scandal’s three reliable stars.
As James, Friend is perfectly cast as a man who can shift his persona from friendly to intimidating in the blink of an eye, but it’s Miller and Dockery who make the biggest impressions in Anatomy of a Scandal. Miller’s esteem has been on the rise for several years now, and her work here proves yet again that she deserves to be considered one of the most capable actresses working today. When she’s called upon in the show’s first episode to have a physical reaction to the news of her husband’s affair, Miller makes her whole body shake with despair, anger, and disbelief, creating a cocktail of emotions that eventually erupt out of her in a moment of raw vulnerability.
Dockery, meanwhile, impresses yet again as Kate, a mercenary but kind public servant who’s capable of being as sharp as a knife when she wants to be and kind and jovial when she doesn’t. The Downton Abbey actress never fails to root Kate’s actions in real, tangible emotions — even when the show puts her at the center of its biggest logic-defying twist. Together, she and Miller bring a level of humanity to Anatomy of a Scandal that the series often comes dangerously close to losing amid its many desperate attempts at narrative cleverness.
Miller and Dockery’s performances are the best gifts Anatomy of a Scandal could ask for, which makes its insistence on prioritizing everything else above them so frustrating. S.J. Clarkson (Jessica Jones, Succession) directs every episode of Anatomy of a Scandal, but her vision for the show doesn’t quite fit with its actual story and tone. Throughout the series, Clarkson frequently constructs scenes using relentlessly quick cuts and fast-moving, overly intricate camera movements. It’s a style that results in something like a simple walk through a government building looking like it was pulled out of a Michael Bay film.
The disconnect between Anatomy of a Scandal’s visual style and its material only continues to grow across its six episodes. Every time a major dramatic shift happens in its story, Clarkson uses the beat as an excuse to turn her camera upside down or send it spinning around a room. Visually, these moments are meant to communicate just how unmoored many of Anatomy of a Scandal’s characters feel, but instead of elevating the show’s various emotional beats, they usually end up distracting from the compelling work being done by Dockery, Miller, and Friend.
The show’s writing often falls into a similar trap. Created and executive produced by David E. Kelley and Melissa James Gibson, the series often injects moments of sudden surrealism into its story, but very few pay off. That’s especially true of a moment near the end of Anatomy of a Scandal’s first episode when James is told that Olivia has accused him of rape and he is suddenly knocked to the ground by some unseen force. It’s a beat that attempts to literalize James’ shock, but it looks undeniably silly on-screen.
There are a number of stylistic faults that hold Anatomy of a Scandal back from greatness but it suffers most from its decision to exclude the perspective of its most important character: Olivia. The character, whose allegation the entire series revolves around, only appears when she is called upon to give her testimony in court and in flashbacks that show her and James’ workplace affair. The series never invests in her story outside of those scenes.
It is a baffling creative decision, one that Anatomy of a Scandal’s creative team tries to make up for in the form of a twist that introduces a substitute for Olivia’s perspective. Unfortunately, the twist in question also stretches the series’ logic beyond its breaking point, which just makes its choice to sideline Olivia feel even more misguided and insensitive.
Ultimately, Anatomy of Scandal says very little of substance about its subject matter. The show’s critiques of the toxicity of fratboy culture have never felt more necessary than they do right now, but even its most scathing moments of social commentary suffer from its need to draw out its mysteries as long as it can. In the end, it’s only Miller, Dockery, and Friend who manage to inject the Netflix series with any moments of actual sensitivity and grace.
Anatomy of a Scandal premieres Friday, April 15, on Netflix.
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