re you beautiful? Rich? White? Female? Are you married to someone who is charming and successful? Are your professional goals being pushed aside by his? Is your house being ripped out of the pages? Architectural Digest? Is there a strong resemblance between you and Nicole Kidman?
You answered Yes If you answer more than five questions, I’m sorry to tell you that it is highly likely you are the subject of a David E. Kelley wealthy-oblivious-wife drama. And that husband, the one you’re so desperately in love with? I’m so sorry, but I’m here to say that he did every bad thing you’re starting to suspect him of doing—and, probably, more.
Then there was Big Little Lies, on HBO, which cast Kidman as a rich Monterey wife and mother whose abusive husband (Alexander Skarsgård) turns out to be mixed up in even nastier business than she knows. And then there was The Undoing, one of HBO’s many attempts to replicate The Truth About Lies, which re-teamed Kelley and Kidman in a psychological thriller about a rich Manhattan therapist who can’t get it through her head that her philandering husband (Hugh Grant) is a psychopath. Evidently, viewers liked this kind of plot. Kelley and Melissa James Gibson were both there on April 15th.House of CardsWith ), cross the Atlantic Anatomy of a Scandala Netflix courtroom drama featuring Sienna Miller, who plays a rich London mother whose wealthy politician husband (Rupert Friend), gets involved in a sex-related scandal.
Nicole Kidman in ‘Big Little Lies’
Similar to its predecessors Anatomy adapts a best-selling novel by a female author—in this case, Sarah Vaughan’s book of the same name. Like The Undoing, it’s a pale imitation of The Truth About Lies, photocopying that show’s saga of marital deception and male monstrousness without expending the same effort to develop characters and flesh out a community. When we meet the Whitehouses—Miller’s Sophie, Friend’s James, and a little blond son and daughter who worship their dad—they are the young, attractive, blue-blooded platonic ideal of a conservative MP’s family. James doesn’t hide his aristocratic exceptionality. “What’s the thing about Whitehouses?” he likes to quiz his kids. The correct answer: “We always come out on top!”
In another exchange typical of the show’s on-the-nose dialogue, Sophie greets an acquaintance at a cocktail party with the pleasantry: “What could be bad on this beautiful day?” She finds out almost immediately. James called her to tell her that he was having an affair with Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott), which has been revealed to the media. Although she’s upset enough to vomit a bit on a photo of Olivia she’s called up on her phone, there’s no real question that Sophie will stick by her husband. That’s what women like her do. But then the other shoe—or, to give the show’s unfeasibly twisty plot its due, the second shoe out of a rack filled to capacity—drops. Olivia has filed rape charges against James, alleging that their final sexual encounter, one blurrily depicted in the premiere’s opening scene, was not consensual.
Michelle Dockery in Anatomy of a Scandal?’
As Sophie’s ordeal plays out, Anatomy also follows the prosecutor assigned to James’ case, Kate Woodcroft (played by Michelle Dockery, as part of her career-long project of portraying TV’s most stereotypically English characters). This character, a hardworking workaholic with a bad reputation, is initially forced to fit into a story that doesn’t include her personal life. But the show makes a case for Kate’s inclusion by setting her up as a foil to Sophie—the compliant, upper-crust housewife and mother vs. the headstrong, hard-working, middle-class feminist.
Although there’s more to Kate than meets the eye—just like there’s more to the bond that keeps the Prime Minister (Geoffrey Streatfeild), James and Sophie’s Oxford classmate, loyal to his old friend—her seemingly extraneous scenes drag down the first half of the six-episode season. S.J. Clarkson, also the director for this great British thriller Collateral, counters the uninspired script with flourishes meant to convey Sophie’s internal turmoil. Shortly before spewing literal bile on Olivia’s headshot, she flashes back to a windblown family beach day, with the Whitehouses decked out in beige and sweaters, that could be a Burberry ad. The episodes usually end with an unexpected effect. Characters float in the air or spin as James and Sophie argue, underlining their marital instability. Miller is no Kidman, but she’s cast well enough here to obviate the need for such pretentious gimmickry.
The acting is actually very good. Dockery and Friend are pros, playing parts well within their respective comfort zones; lesser-known actors like Kudzai Sitima (as Kate’s protégé) and Kathryn Wilder (as Olivia’s confidant) make strong showings in smaller roles. It is the fault of Anatomy’s broadness—and certainly for the silliest twist this side of Netflix’s even messier marital thriller Hinter Her Eyes—lies mostly with writing that tweaks characters to fit the plot, rather than the other way around. You can find it here and there. The Undoing, it’s as though Kelley is relying on viewers to extrapolate personalities and motivations from the analogous, genuinely complex characters he (building on author Liane Moriarty’s foundation) constructed for Big Little Lies.
Rupert Friend & Sienna Miller, “Anatomy of a Scandal”,
The heart of the wealthy-oblivious wife plot is full of real insights. They are similar to their relatives in the crazy-wife thriller (Gone Girl, The Train with the Girl, The woman in the windowThese two factors, combined with the gendered issues of heterosexual marital relationships, can lead to serious criminal consequences. Kelley’s unofficial trilogy is actually more broad-minded and insightful than the crazy-wife oeuvre, whose narratives rarely dig into said wives’ prototypical whiteness and relative wealth. Whether they turn out to be rapists or just cads, the husbands in Kelley’s shows are always unfaithful—so it’s always the wife who initially appears to be the primary injured party.
We learn more about the other woman as we watch the series. She is invariably younger, poorer, nonwhite, or some combination of the three, and her suffering makes the wife’s pain look petty. Moreover—and especially in Anatomy of a ScandalHome ideas for the first season include a pound. The Truth About Lies patiently floated—the rich, oblivious wife is shown to be passively complicit in her spouse’s abuses. She isn’t just oblivious to his infidelity, you see; she’s also, and more importantly, oblivious to her privilege as the high-status woman he must at least pretend to love and respect. This rich, ignorant wife is simultaneously a victim of her husband’s infidelity and a perpetrator.
It is an accurate representation of the uncomfortable position that white women find themselves in today’s society. Additional culpability can be assigned to heterosexuality and affluence as well as conventional beauty and other competitive advantage. It’s that ambivalence that keeps so many viewers, and particularly so many women of all identities, hooked on Kelley’s rich-oblivious-wife shows, even as these stories’ returns keep diminishing. While we may come to Kelley’s show for its star casts and hold my beer twists, what keeps us coming back is the exploration of moral ambiguities in white womenhood and white male proximity. These meditations are more like lectures than talks. There is, without a doubt, much more left to say on the topic—which is why it’s such a shame to see Kelley keep repeating himself.
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