David E. Kelley’s ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ Plunges Political and Sexual Scandal Deep Into Glossy Melodrama 

Netflix’s “Anatomy of a Scandal” is an anthology series that puts a different spin on the genre. As hinted in the title, every season will feature a new scandal, particularly of the British variety. The challenge is not that easy, since scandals that make the best TV have to be real jaw-droppers. This first season, based on a novel by Sarah Vaughan, initiates the series with the easiest kind of wrongdoing. No one can be shocked these days when a politician is caught cheating on their spouse, or when powerful men get accused of sexual misconduct. For most of the first half of the season, the show feels like a typical rundown of allegations, before turning up the melodrama volume.

The power player in trouble is James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), a member of the British parliament and close friend of the prime minister. He has the necessary, deceptively perfect family with gorgeous wife Sophie (Sienna Miller) and two kids. Their prestigious marital bliss is shattered when Chris Clarke (Joshua McGuire), the PM’s communication czar, lets the Whitehouses know that a woman named Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott) has been found out by the tabloids as James’s mistress. It was an office affair, apparently, which began when Olivia was a parliamentarian researcher. An expected media storm follows but gets worse when Olivia accuses James of rape in a House of Commons lift. A trial is set to begin with the prosecution being headed by Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery), a ruthless barrister who jumps into the case with sharp focus.

While “Anatomy of a Scandal” is set in the U.K., it’s almost not a surprise to discover that it’s a production headed by David E. Kelley, that very American maestro of brisk, pumped up drama. Fresh off his success of “Big Little Lies” and the less impressive “Nine Perfect Strangers,” Kelley, and collaborator Melissa James Gibson, turn Vaughan’s novel into a simple entertainment that still goes for some meaningful themes. The abuse of power through sex, the decadence of the ruling classes and the plight of spouses caught in the crossfire, all are explored with melodramatic energy. Excellent actors walk hand in hand with stylized storytelling. It’s not enough for Olivia to accuse James of rape. The show keeps cutting back to soapy, intense moments inside the lift meant to confuse us into wondering if the encounter was consensual, as James claims. These moments contrast with Olivia’s powerful, stirring testimony where she has to resist the defense attempting to slut-shame her. 

There are engaging themes and side stories throughout the narrative, all diluted by feeling less personal and more like basic thriller plot points. Kate is sleeping with her former mentor, who happens to be married, which raises intriguing mirror reflections regarding the case. Each episode gives us a glimpse into how James and Sophie met as students in Oxford, where the privileged offspring of the elite party hard and indulge in sexual harassment without consequences. Soon enough other accusations against James arise, and Sophie must face if the man she married has always harbored a more dangerous side. The Oxford angle also contributes to how the plot will then careen off the rails. Her character is at least allowed to be more than a victimized wife. She’s a woman used to the halls of power, with an icy mother who tells her that tolerating a philandering husband is part of the price one pays for such privilege. Joshua McGuire is acidly entertaining as the communications czar who doesn’t shy away from barking at James that he’s finished, while giving the prime minister politically vicious advice. 

Yet “Anatomy of a Scandal” may just satisfy as slick entertainment. Its themes are worthy but it never dives too much into them. The very scandal itself is more of the focus than the emotional turmoil, questions of power and broken psyches. It’s the series equivalent of a quick-consumption paperback that you pick up for some skillful distraction, with just enough sharpness to keep it from being too shallow. For some viewers it may just be a distracting tonic in an age where no politicians are trusted and the way the powerful carry out sexual violence keeps being exposed. Such topics also deserve richer insights than the quick rush of a show you will surely find easy to binge.

Anatomy of a Scandal” season one begins streaming April 15 on Netflix.