There could not have been a more fitting time for Anatomy of a Scandal (Netflix) to arrive. This splashy, trashy drama, a starry adaptation of the novel by Sarah Vaughan, deals with politicians who believe themselves to be above the law, and the blind privilege of the ultra-wealthy. It is a twisty, slippery thing, so the specifics are difficult to discuss without spoiling it. But Sienna Miller is Sophie Whitehouse, happily married to Britain’s “most fanciable” minister, James (a brilliantly oily Rupert Friend), until they find their lives swept up in the scandal of the title.
None of these characters speak like human beings. “My darling man, where the fuck are you?” coos Sophie down the phone when her husband fails to turn up to a party. “If the future doesn’t include you, Sophie Whitehouse, then the future is shite,” he coos back, later on. Bleurgh. Maybe this is how posh people woo each other. “You think like a poet … politics could always use more poetry,” says James, but not to Sophie, which is where his most recent troubles begin. He deserves to be put in the dock for that line alone.
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. 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.
And there are many fireworks. There is a cartoonish bastard of a spin doctor (“Fun on the side with a filly?”) and a feckless prime minister with his own skeletons in the closet. Music swells at a volume not heard since Love Is Blind, with the lyrics similarly explaining what is happening on screen: “How the mighty faaaaalll!” There are surreal flashes of people suddenly appearing in memories of scenes when they were not there, or of the emotional impact becoming literal, and dropping characters from a great height. The cameras appear to have been supping from the subsidised bars in the Commons. Rarely is a scene shot from an angle that isn’t tilted, twisted or upside down. Some scenes start on a wonk and end with the floor on the ceiling. I understand that there is chaos going on, but I felt nauseated after six episodes of it.
Anatomy of a Scandal comes from the stable of David E Kelley, who has form with this kind of thing – stoic rich women with slippery handsome husbands – having executive-produced Big Little Lies and The Undoing, among many other shows. (His co-creator here is Melissa James Gibson, who wrote for The Americans and House of Cards.) Considering this deals with the upper echelons of the British class system, it has a distinctly American feel. “The behaviour of entitled toffs is no longer something the public finds cute,” says the spin doctor, though my theory is that in Britain, we only ever did, or do, indulge it from the safe distance of a period drama.
Even so, for the first half, I was happily bingeing along, in the same mood as if gobbling up an airport potboiler on the beach. Miller, Friend and Michelle Dockery, who plays a stern barrister called Kate, a woman with a personality best described as “workaholic wearing glasses”, are all clearly trying their best with what they have been given. Although in the end it doesn’t quite land, there are attempts to pick at complex themes of sex, power and manipulation. Later in the series, there is a moment that appears to nod to Brett Kavanaugh’s rage before the US Senate judiciary committee, following Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. In the stoic rich wife role, Sophie hints at discovering her own privilege and ruthlessness, a curious thread that isn’t taken far enough.
Unfortunately, and this is a big unfortunately, there is a twist. I hope this doesn’t count as a spoiler, and I suspect it won’t, because at the moment Netflix’s main selling point is “trashy thriller with a twist” so it feels inevitable that there would be one. When that twist comes, it is so ridiculous and far-fetched that I had spent the previous episodes certain that it could not be the twist, because even this show wouldn’t be so daft. It’s a scandal that it is. My darling plot, I thought, where are you?