Anatomy of a Scandal could have been a big hit. Drawing inspiration from A Very English Scandal and (whether intentionally or not) Matt Hancock’s sordid affair, Netflix’s latest 6-episode romp is a light, breezy watch – which is a shame given the subject material being explored. Scandal blends a court room drama with a light mystery and heavy themes around sexual assault. And it handles all of them about as effectively as a baby wielding a shotgun.
The story centers on modern day politics in Britain. The Conservative Party are in power but news breaks of a top MP, James Whitehouse, having had an affair with his parliamentary aide, Olivia Lytton, for 5 months. The Prime Minister supports James, thanks in part to events that have occurred in the past, while James’ wife Sophie also stands by her husband’s side.
However, when Olivia claims that James raped her, the story becomes much more serious, and with it, so too is the investigation as a big case is built around this.
Fronting the charge is Kate Woodcroft, a prolific prosecutor who takes on this high-profile case while trying (and failing) to keep a balanced perspective. As the season progresses, secrets are revealed that change the fate of our characters forever.
While the set-up is good, everything else falls apart in spectacular fashion. The biggest problems here come from both focus and likability. Anatomy of a Scandal is utterly confused over who it wants us to root for, with Olivia Lytton only showing up sporadically across the season. Given this case is supposed to be about her, it’s shocking that she’s not even there for the final verdict.
Likewise, it’s hard to feel empathy for James, given he cheated on his wife for 5 months. Sophie stands by her husband but slowly starts to question him, but only after the rape allegation and her friends turn away from her, making for a somewhat weak and wishy-washy supporting character. At the same time, Kate Woodcroft is arrogant and so self-assured (not to mention starved of screen time) that it takes a while to warm to her.
At times it almost feels like the show is aware of its own problems, but given the focus is almost exclusively on James Whitehouse, it’s really hard to see where the creators were going with this. That’s to say nothing of the actual handling of this sexual assault which is… bad.
Compared to a show like Unbelievable (Also on Netflix) which dived into the harrowing effects of this with incredibly grace and poignancy, Anatomy of a Scandal uses this as a plot hook but never actually dives into the psyche of the victims to see how they’ve been changed because of it. Aside from Olivia’s teary statement and another moment late on, it’s scandalous that this show never dives into the psychological impact of sexual assault more.
For a show tackling such heavy material, it’s surprising to find it so utterly distracting when it comes to the visual style. Dutch tilts (tilting the camera so everything looks diagonal) is overused throughout the show, there are some utterly bizarre surreal segments (including one at the end of episode 1 where a character quite literally flies through the air backwards after hearing something shocking.)
During the court case itself, spotlights shine on characters (particularly prevalent during the later chapters) and each of the flashbacks are graced with an annoying fisheye lens (blurred edges and echoed voices to accentuate it’s a flashback.)
Ordinarily I wouldn’t point these things out unless they’re absolutely relevant but watching Anatomy of a Scandal, you’re constantly reminded that the camera is there, and it breaks any sort of immersion this show is trying to build. Out of the six episodes, there are perhaps one of two neat little edits, one of which showing Olivia stepping out of the past and into the witness stand.
Despite a stacked cast, Anatomy of a Scandal is a poor show. It’s riddled with unlikable characters, an unbalanced tone and some utterly distracting camera work. For such a serious matter, Anatomy of a Scandal is almost laughable how bad it handles this subject. That’s a real shame too because there’s definitely potential here but just like a politician, behind that bright smile and big promise is just another empty shell of disappointment.
Anatomy of a Scandal drops on Netflix worldwide Friday 15th April!
Verdict - 3/10