Ridiculous twist throws Netflix’s ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ off the rails

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“Anatomy of a Scandal” features terrific acting and an absorbing, multi-layered storyline — until it careens off the rails (or is that jumps the shark?) late in the game with a plot twist that beggars the imagination.

On the surface, the six-part Netflix anthology series, written by TV veteran David E. Kelley and Melissa James Gibson and premiering April 15, is a standard “Did he or didn’t he?” tale involving British politician James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), a high-level minister who’s accused by one of his staffers, Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott), of raping her in a workplace elevator a week after breaking off their torrid five-month affair.

On the surface, James is a happily married father of two, devoted to his wife, Sophie (Sienna Miller) — they met as students at Oxford — and to his admiring constituency. His best friend lives at 10 Downing Street: that’s British prime minister Tom Southern (Geoffrey Streetfeild), his drinking/carousing buddy from Oxford who, like James, comes from a spoiled background of privilege. To wit: the rules apply to everyone but themselves and to their elitist cronies.

James confesses his affair to Sophie, who’s more understanding than she should be (this rings false), but who believes her husband is not guilty of rape. “I was weak,” he tells her. “It was just sex.” He’s stripped of his ministry and pleads not guilty, and Sophie’s support of James starts to waver once his trial begins. Olivia takes the stand and, when prodded by criminal barrister Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery), describes in sordid detail his allegedly violent behavior (he bit her, leaving a bruise, and tore her blouse and underwear). Kate normally doesn’t handle this type of case but she’s laser-focused on bringing James to justice — while she’s having an affair with her a married man who’s also her former mentor.

Naomi Scott as Olivia Lytton in "Anatomy of a Scandal." She'swearing a green sweater and holding a glass and partially smiling.
Naomi Scott as Olivia Lytton in “Anatomy of a Scandal.”
Netflix
Michelle Dockery as barrister Kate Woodcroft. She's seated and is wearing a British barrister's wig and a dark robe. She is wearing black glasses.
Michelle Dockery plays barrister Kate Woodcroft, who prosecutes James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend).
Netflix

Each episode ends with a surprise revelation, but things really shift into high gear in Episode 3, when we discover more about James and Tom — and a shared tragedy that they’ve covered up for 20 years — while an unidentified woman comes forward with a charge that James raped her, too, during his Oxford days. Sophie, meanwhile — in typical trope-y thriller style — starts to suspect that James isn’t the man she thought he was (gee, ya think?), while Kate teeters on the brink of an emotional meltdown over her own dark secrets and the fear that she will be exposed.

That’s when Kelley and Gibson, who’ve set the narrative table rather nicely to this point (if somewhat predictably), blow it all to smithereens with a WTF? revelation that plunges “Anatomy of a Scandal” into daytime soap territory and nearly destroys it completely. But kudos to the three principal stars — Friend, Miller and Dockery — who hold the story together despite its absurdist twist and help the series retain its strangely gripping, binge-worthy status as it chugs toward its conclusion.

If you’re like me, you’ll watch “Anatomy of a Scandal” all the way through — if only to see how it all ends for everyone involved.

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