"Are you beautiful? Rich? White? Female? Do you happen to be married, with kids, to a charming, successful man?" asks Judy Berman of the Netflix anthology series. "Have your professional aspirations taken a backseat to his? Could your home have been ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest? Do you bear a striking resemblance to Nicole Kidman? If you answered yes to more than five of these questions, then I regret to inform you of the extremely high probability that you are the protagonist of a David E. Kelley rich-oblivious-wife drama. And that husband, the one you’re so desperately in love with? I’m so sorry, but I’m here to say that he did every bad thing you’re starting to suspect him of doing—and, probably, more." The acting is mostly good on Anatomy of a Scandal, which Kelley co-created with Melissa James Gibson. "The fault for Anatomy’s broadness—and certainly for the silliest twist this side of Netflix’s even messier marital thriller Behind Her Eyes—lies mostly with writing that tweaks characters to fit the plot, rather than the other way around," says Berman. "Here and in The Undoing, it’s as though Kelley is relying on viewers to extrapolate personalities and motivations from the analogous, genuinely complex characters he (building on author Liane Moriarty’s foundation) constructed for Big Little Lies."
Anatomy of a Scandal is the type of show that will leave you with a hangover: "You’ll blissfully binge through all six 45-minute-long episodes of the series, gasping at wild twists and screaming at least one bonkers reveal, and then look back with a sour feeling of regret," says Meghan O'Keefe. "Anatomy of a Scandal appears to be glossy, important fare on the surface. It’s got an esteemed cast of British stars, David E. Kelley as a writer/producer, and S.J. Clarkson doing some honestly fascinating direction. However, once you sit with the show’s ludicrous ending, you’ll feel as bamboozled as Sienna Miller‘s Sophie Whitehouse does through out the series. Don’t get me wrong: Anatomy of a Scandal is a banger of a tawdry thriller, but it’s maybe not the elevated fare its creative team clearly thought they were bringing to life."
None of Anatomy of a Scandal's characters speak like human beings: "It unfolds at a pace, half in the present day, half in flashback to Sophie and James’s time at Oxford, where he rowed and was a member of the Bullingdon-esque Libertine club," says Rebecca Nicholson. "There is boorish behaviour. People say 'boys will be boys' on more than one occasion. People meet in dark corridors to discuss dastardly deals. It is part political thriller, part courtroom drama, and it attempts to wear many hats. On the one hand, it is a twisty thriller that knows it is silly and hams that up. On the other, it attempts a serious exploration of consent and power, which sits uneasily with all the fireworks, and barely begins to unravel the knots it makes for itself."
Anatomy of a Scandal takes big swings, few of which connect: "Despite able performers and potent themes, the show is so addicted to chaos that it squanders its chance to say anything substantive," says Daniel D'Addario, adding: "Much like the characters at the action shots that end Anatomy’s episodes, we the viewers are left floating, confused, barraged by new information but lacking the context a better-drawn series would provide."
There’s a lot of redoing of The Undoing in Anatomy of a Scandal, down to the same character archetypes: "A beautiful, wealthy wife and mother (Miller) slowly coming to grips with the reality of who she’s been married to all these years, and the slick cad of a husband who denies everything (Friend as a Member of Parliament who hails from a well-to-do family)," says Nina Metz. "There’s even a brilliant Black female defense attorney in the mix, styled nearly identically in each show, who deserves more screen time than she gets, played by Noma Dumezweni in The Undoing and Josette Simon in Anatomy of a Scandal.”
Anatomy of a Scandal was made to be binge-watched: "Sometimes you crave art, and sometimes you just want some pulpy, well-crafted entertainment with broad, bourgeois appeal," says Chris Vognar. "Netflix’s Anatomy of a Scandal manages to deliver a little of both. In dissecting a rape case among Britain’s power elite, it offers hairpin plot turns and topicality with a sense of style. It keeps the pages turning. It was made to binge."
Anatomy of a Scandal favors style over substance: "Perhaps the biggest advantage Anatomy of a Scandal has working in its favor is its brevity; at only six episodes, the show manages to be compulsively bingeable in spite of itself, with a sufficient number of intriguing narrative threads to keep viewers hooked through to the end," says Carly Lane. "That said, it also suffers from a lackluster ending, one that may call into question whether watching in the first place was time worth spending at all. Out of all the thriller fare that Kelley has adapted for the small screen to date, the whole of Anatomy of a Scandal is disappointingly much less compelling than the sum of its parts."
There are several bizarre gaps in the show’s structure that fail to account for the show being British: "While (James) Whitehouse is shown rehearsing with his lawyer, (Kate) Woodcroft is never shown consulting with (Olivia) Lytton; how will the audience know if, according to English law, the former is allowed but the latter isn’t?" says Nandini Balial. "Another glaring error in the show’s writing is its constant use of Americanisms. The English say 'surname,' not 'last name'; 'gone to the cinema' or 'the pictures,' not “the movies.” Out of curiosity I went and read Anatomy of a Scandal, the novel, after I finished the series. It’s not bad: the writing is more acerbic, more personal, less slapdash. The strongest page-to-screen characterization is that of Prime Minister Tom Sturridge, whose TV double bears a striking resemblance to former PM David Cameron (himself no stranger to horrible behavior at Oxford), and who, for some mysterious reason, refuses to distance himself from James. Everyone else has been, well, Americanized."
Anatomy of a Scandal is a rich tale of consent and accountability: "Sex, privilege and politics drive the plot forward," says Thelma Adams. "As directed by S.J. Clarkson, the suspense builds from episode to episode as these three complicated, well-drawn characters knock against each other – in court, in private and in memory. Not only is the issue of sexual consent in the #MeToo era put under the microscope, the advantage taken by the privileged and the elite’s ability to escape accountability resonates in our current season of bold-faced lies as legitimate communication is taken to task. The need for consent is absolute, but comeuppance is also immensely satisfying."
Anatomy of a Scandal is compelling, even in its shortcomings: "There are unintentionally laughable moments, but the acting is strong and the story hits too close to home to feel unbelievable," says Emily Zemler. "It’s not based on one true story; it’s seemingly based on many. The final moments feel like an aside, rather than a satisfying conclusion, but series does manage to make its point: Men like James will always come out on top."