The success of Netflix’s latest drama compounds its problem with quality control


Let’s get one thing straight: Anatomy of a Scandal is a ridiculous show. 

The first of many upcoming Netflix projects from Big Little Lies writer David E. Kelley, the series is a starry adaptation of Sarah Vaughan’s best-selling novel, and tells the story of a Westminster politician (Rupert Friend) accused of raping his aide (Naomi Scott). The man’s wife (Sienna Miller) is utterly convinced of his innocence, though her resolve is tested by a headstrong prosecutor (Michelle Dockery) determined to prove otherwise. 

You’d be forgiven for thinking that synopsis reads like standard contemporary drama fare, and Kelley’s latest show – adapted for the screen with co-writer Melissa James Gibson (House of Cards) – hasn’t won over critics with any semblance of notable style or substance. 

TechRadar’s own senior entertainment editor, Tom Goodwyn, described Anatomy of a Scandal as little more than “roughly six hours of Sienna Miller sighing,” which is one of the more forgiving assessments you’ll find on the internet if you go looking.  

It’s a wonder, then, that the series has skyrocketed to the top of Netflix’s weekly popularity charts. Having scored more than 75 million hours viewed in the past seven days, Anatomy of a Scandal has become the first Netflix show to knock Bridgerton season 2 from its perch, and looks poised to remain in the top spot for several weeks to come.

Except, its success isn’t really a wonder at all. In recent years, Netflix has perfected the art of trickster television – series that attract audiences, like moths to a flame, with big names and moody marketing, only to leave them unsatisfied but equally unwilling to bail on their time investment halfway through watching.

GQ’s Ben Allen recently raised the same point in his description of the 'Prestige Imposter', a type of show that, in his words, “has all the trappings of your glossy HBO faves – huge stars, silly budgets, big ticket writers – but veers closer to EastEnders in depth and quality, a Trojan Horse filled with human excrement.” 

Okay, maybe Anatomy of a Scandal isn't quite that bad, but it certainly doesn't warrant more viewers than every other TV show streaming right now.

Rupert Friend in Anatomy of a Scandal

Rupert Friend stars as a politician accused of sexual assault in Anatomy of a Scandal (Image credit: Netflix)

Of the myriad streaming services at customers’ disposal in 2022, Netflix is the biggest offender when it comes to peddling below-par series in such large quantities. Make no mistake, the platform still has the capacity to produce awards-worthy television – Stranger Things and Sex Education rank among the best in recent memory – but its frequently lazy output has begun to grate on subscribers toying with the notion that their money might be better spent elsewhere. 

Netflix bosses know this. In response to the news that the streamer has hemorrhaged 200,000 paying customers since the beginning of 2022, CEO Reed Hastings told investors that the company plans to “re-accelerate viewing and revenue growth by continuing to improve all aspects of Netflix – in particular, the quality of [its] programming.”

Like Apple TV Plus – whose recent projects CODA and Severance have proven the value in investing in truly unique original programming – Netflix must now trust in the willingness of its viewers to embrace the unfamiliar, and also give those original series that do break the mold time to breath before condemning them to the scrap heap.

But it doesn’t help the cause when shows like Anatomy of a Scandal defy their quality to become – in the eyes of Netflix’s statisticians – successful productions. When these safe, shallow series rake in 75 million viewing hours in a single week, their success risks justifying the streamer’s decision to cancel other genuinely interesting projects (like those previously in development at its animation department) that would immeasurably improve the quality of the service as a whole. 

There is, therefore, an awkward contradiction at play that raises several, difficult to answer questions. If these so-called 'Prestige Imposters' are consistently proving popular, should Netflix continue commissioning them in a bid to regain subscriber momentum? Do Netflix customers – who have so openly criticized the streamer and its recent content – really care about the quality of the shows they’re watching? Or are the likes of Anatomy of a Scandal only ranking as the most popular on Netflix because the options are so limited?

To be clear: Netflix subscribers are not at fault here. Logic simply suggests that the company will look to replicate its big wins by doing just that – producing homogeneous series that reap big viewership figures at the expense of critical disdain. Perhaps, though, acclaim is overrated – if audiences are genuinely enjoying Anatomy of a Scandal and not simply sticking it out until the end, then more power to Netflix.

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Still, for our money, the streamer must focus on quality over quantity moving forward if it hopes to fend off the increasingly fierce competition from rival platforms like Disney Plus and HBO Max. The company’s imminent crackdown on password sharing and likely introduction of a cheaper, ad-supported subscription tier will go some way to mitigating its losses, but as Netflix well knows: content is, and always will be, king.  

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