Netflix’s new No. 1 show explained — what is Anatomy of a Scandal?

Rupert Friend and Sienna Miller in Anatomy of a Scandal
(Image credit: Netflix)

Move over, Bridgerton and The Ultimatum — Netflix has a new No. 1 show. Anatomy of a Scandal, released this past Friday, has jumped to the top of the leaderboard in the U.S. And while it's not technically a true crime show, like the recent Netflix hit Inventing Anna, Anatomy of a Scandal does take inspiration from real-life political figures.

The British anthology series comes from Big Little Lies creator David E. Kelley and former House Of Cards showrunner Melissa James Gibson. It's adapted from the 2017 novel by of the same name by Sarah Vaughan, who was previously a journalist at The Guardian. 

Anatomy of a Scandal follows Sophie Whitehouse (Sienna Miller), who is leading a blissful life with husband, James (Rupert Friend), a high-ranking politician who is close friends with Prime Minister Tom Souther (Geoffrey Streatfeild). Her world is turned upside down when James confesses an affair with a staffer. Then, the staffer, Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott), accuses him of raping her in the office elevator after breaking off their illicit relationship. 

Sophie initially stands by James, until prosecuting barrister Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery) tears him apart at trial. Doubts begin to creep in, and Sophie is left wondering if she truly knows her husband. 

Here is our handy guide to Netflix's new No. 1 show, including an explainer of the ending and news about Anatomy of a Scandal season 2.

Also, some episodic TV housekeeping: Derry Girls season 3 episode 2 is almost here (and doesn't require Netflix). Plus, would you believed me if I told you things get weirder in Moon Knight episode 4?

Is Anatomy of a Scandal a true story?

Anatomy of a Scandal isn't based on a true crime, but author Sarah Vaughn used her background as a political reporter to write the book. During her stint at The Guardian, she covered several resignations of cabinet ministers due to scandal. 

Vaughn has explained that she drew inspiration from two cases, in particular. The first involved Boris Johnson, the current Prime Minister. In 2004, when Johnson was a rising MP in the Tory party, British tabloids reported that he had been having an affair with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt. 

Johnson initially denied the affair, calling the allegations "an inverted pyramid of piffle." However, when they were proven to be true, Johnson was fired from key government roles. He retained his role as MP for Henley and was even re-elected the following year. 

As Vaughn told The Guardian, "It was the first time I was aware of a public figure admitting to lying and not seeming to be bothered by it.”

Rupert Friend as James Whitehouse in Anatomy of a Scandal

(Image credit: Netflix)

The second case that inspired Anatomy of a Scandal occurred in 2014. Footballer Ched Evans was convicted for raping a 19-year-old woman. He served half his sentence before getting a retrial, which brought forth new evidence from witnesses about the woman's sexual history. Evans was found not guilty.  

"I was upset by the way in which the alleged rape victim was depicted by commentators," Vaughn said, "and started thinking about how horrific it must be to summon up the courage to come forward with a rape conviction and then have doubt cast on that in the papers and in court."

In season 1, the characters of James Whitehouse and Tom Southern were members of a social club called The Libertines at Oxford University. It's based on a real Oxford dining club called the Bullingdon Club, which was founded was a hunting and cricket group. 

In 1913, the New York Times wrote that it "represents some of the exclusiveness at Oxford; it is the club of the sons of nobility, the sons of great wealth; its membership represents the 'young bloods' of the university." The Guardian said Bullingdon Club was rife with "champagne-swilling, restaurant-trashing, 'pleb'-taunting elitism."

Past members include Johnson, former Prime Minister David Cameron, King Edward VIII and King Frederick VII of Denmark. 

Anatomy of a Scandal reviews: Should you watch?

While Anatomy of a Scandal vaulted to No. 1 on Netflix's Top 10 list, it isn't a favorite among critics. 

Season 1 has a middling 59 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the critical consensus reading, "Anatomy of a Scandal has the bones of a good David E. Kelley potboiler but lacks the connective tissue to really work, although the starry cast provides an intrigue all its own."

The Guardian's Rebecca Nicholson complains that the final twist 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."

Peter Travers of ABC News is more kind, citing "don't-miss performances from Miller, Scott, and Dockery" and episodes that "hold you in thrall despite a weakness for cheap theatrics."

Nick Hilton, The Independent writes, "The biggest problem with Anatomy of a Scandal is its own slipperiness. Is this an erotic thriller? A courtroom drama? An expose of social issues? At times it is all of these things, though most of the time it exists in the listless space between any clear genre – or sense of identity."

CNN's Brian Lowry calls the show a "crisply told, nicely binge-able mystery that doesn’t overstay its welcome." Lowry adds it "overcomes its flaws well enough to lay the groundwork for what’s intended to become an ongoing franchise of tightly constructed self-contained thrillers."

Anatomy of a Scandal season 1 ending, explained

Spoilers ahead for the Anatomy of a Scandal season 1 finale 

At the end of James' trial, he is found not guilty by the jury. While the jury members don't explain their verdict, it's clear that they were swayed by his defense that he experienced a moment of passion and didn't hear Olivia's protests. They also might have believed that Olivia was angry because the affair ended and her allegations were a way of getting back at him. 

However, one important person does think James is guilty: his wife, Sophie. When she confronts him, she is horrified when he admits that he did hear Olivia ask him to stop but still doesn't think what he did was rape. She packs up their kids and leaves. 

Sienna Miller as Sophie Whitehouse in Anatomy of a Scandal

(Image credit: Netflix)

Sophie also decides to deliver justice in another way. During the case, it came out that James had assaulted a fellow student at Oxford. The woman didn't want to press charges, so it was hushed up. Sophie believes that woman may have been her former study partner, Holly Berry, who left the university under mysterious circumstances. 

Sophie then figures out that Holly is actually the same person as Kate Woodcroft, the prosecutor in James' trial! They meet, and Kate explains she never filed a complaint because James was a privileged, popular athlete and nobody would have believed her. She still doesn't want to reveal her identity and the assault, as it would harm her career. 

But Sophie has another secret that they can use to put James in prison. The same night of Holly's assault, he and Tom Southern (the eventual Prime Minister) were partying with their social club The Libertines. Tom brought heroin and shared with another club member, Alec. When Tom encouraged Alec to jump from a terrace, he fell to his death. James convinced him to run away to avoid arrest. 

To cover up his involvement, he heads to girlfriend Sophie's dorm so he can establish an alibi. On the way there, he runs into a drunk Holly and forces himself on her. Despite her attempts to push him away, James continues to assault her. He also calls her a "prick tease" — just as he did with Olivia years later. 

Sophie contacts a journalist with the story. In the final moments of the season, James and Tom are arrested. 

Is Anatomy of a Scandal season 2 happening?

Michelle Dockery as Kate Woodcroft in Anatomy of a Scandal

(Image credit: Netflix)

Anatomy of a Scandal was pitched as an anthology series, with each season focusing on a new scandal. It would be similar to the British drama A Very English Scandal, which featured Hugh Grant as a politician involved in a murder conspiracy in season 1 and moves onto a 1963 aristocratic sex scandal in season 2. 

Netflix hasn't renewed Anatomy of a Scandal season 2 yet. The streaming service generally takes at least a month to monitor viewership before making renewals, though there are exceptions for outright blockbuster hits. 

If Anatomy of a Scandal season 2 does move forward, it could bring back at least one key player: Michelle Dockery as prosecutor Kate Woodcroft. Season 1 ends with a shot of Kate looking at the camera as she begins a new trial. 

"It definitely feels like there’s momentum at the end that could potentially lead into something else," Dockery told Today

Kelly Woo
Streaming Editor

Kelly is the streaming channel editor for Tom’s Guide, so basically, she watches TV for a living. Previously, she was a freelance entertainment writer for Yahoo, Vulture, TV Guide and other outlets. When she’s not watching TV and movies for work, she’s watching them for fun, seeing live music, writing songs, knitting and gardening.