The 11 Best Scandalous Shows on TV Right Now
A guide to the finest hits that are out to keep you hooked and appalled
Noticing an uptick in scandalous tales on TV lately? You’re right. This season we’ve got series on clandestine wiretapping and canoodling; allegations of brutality and prosecutorial abuse; fiction that flirts with documentary; and sex, lies, videotape, and more lies. Likable impostors and plots like a Tilt-a-Whirl ride. (Anatomy of a Scandal, hand us the Dramamine!)
Welcome to the AARP’s scandal (cheat) sheet: the juiciest TV you can possibly binge, all streaming now.
Anatomy of a Scandal
There’s plenty of anatomy in this courtroom drama — which body parts touched when and where, and was consent given? Did ascendant Brit politician James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend) rape an underling with whom he’d had an affair, or is she out for revenge? Sienna Miller portrays wife Sophie, whose stance on her man is sorely tested by the incremental ways in which he confesses his sins. Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery dons the white wig as his prosecutor. Does her stony tenacity reflect a zealous belief in Whitehouse’s guilt, or is there more? Need you ask?
Watch it: Anatomy of a Scandal on Netflix
Writer-showrunner Robbie Pickering (Mr. Robot) returns to the scene of Nixon’s political crime of the century and its lunatic players. Only he cast his wryly smart eye on loudmouth whistleblower Martha Mitchell (and to a lesser extent John Dean). The ensemble for this power-play drama is power-packed with Julia Roberts playing Martha; Sean Penn portraying her hubby, Nixon-appointed Attorney General John Mitchell; Shea Whigham as G. Gordon Liddy; Dan Stevens as Dean; and Betty Gilpin as Mo Dean.
Watch it: Gaslit on Starz
A Very English Scandal
Hugh Grant once leveraged his hangdog demeanor to winning effect in romantic comedies. He plies that downward-tilted head and twist of the mouth in this fact-based show about Jeremy Thorpe, a member of the British Parliament. There’s comedy here, underlined by a winking musical score. There are faint hints of romance, or the anguished, closeted version of it. In the early 1960s, Thorpe attempted to rid himself of his pesky former boyfriend. Ben Whishaw won an Emmy for his portrayal of Thorpe’s politically dangerous liaison, Norman Scott. The show poses two universal questions: Why are posh criminals so inept? And why does their guilt so often not matter in the end?
Watch it: A Very English Scandal on Amazon Prime
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A Very British Scandal
Amazon Studios’ also-fact-based follow-up to A Very English Scandal finds the Duke and Duchess of Argyll famously duking it out in court, once their marriage hits the rocks in the early ’60s. Paul Bettany and Claire Foy portray Ian and Margaret, the unhappy couple who meet cute enough — if you’re fond of cleverly phrased infidelity. Contempt, cruelty and the toxic claims of class make for a bracing cocktail in this oh-so-British drama.
Watch it: A Very British Scandal on Amazon Prime
Whether you loved it, hate-watched it or both, ABC’s Scandal secured Shonda Rhimes’ place in TV’s firmament. Kerry Washington plays public relations fixer Olivia Pope (based on George H. W. Bush’s press aide Judy Smith), whose on-again, off-again romance with married prez Fitzgerald Grant III kept audiences rooting for (or against) them to the very end. So, let’s raise a glass — a Shiraz, please — to Pope and her Gladiators for seven seasons of a nighttime drama imagining nightmarish political conspiracies while teasing daytime soap-style entanglements.
Watch it: Scandal on Hulu
Don’t miss this: Shonda Rhimes’ Best TV Shows of All Time (So Far!)
Shonda Rhimes adapted Jessica Pressler’s 2018 New York magazine article “Maybe She Had So Much Money She Just Lost Track of It” — and no wonder. It’s about a young female impostor who hoodwinked Manhattan’s hoi polloi. The protagonists have many of the lack-of-character traits found in Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder: craven ambition, an elitist unawareness of other people’s problems, and a moral compass gone screwy, thanks to the magnetic pull of wealth (or the illusions of it). Julia Garner (standout character Ruth in Ozark) brings an amusingly hard-to-place accent to her role as Anna Delvey. Anna Chlumsky plays the hungry reporter Vivian Kent.
Watch it: Inventing Anna on Netflix
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Does the Bard’s play belong in such guilty-pleasure company, really? You bet it does. Were there tabloids back in Elizabethan England, the headlines would have blared news of the Thane of Glamis (and then Cawdor), his motivated lady and the ways the pair came to ruin. Joel Coen’s crisp, stark version of the Scottish Play stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the bloodied couple and counts Brendan Gleeson’s Duncan amid the ever-ratcheting-up body count.
Watch it: The Tragedy of Macbeth on Apple TV+
Blink and you might miss a wholly instructional — and cautionary — moment early in the limited series about Theranos founder and biotech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried). Elizabeth and her brother return to their Houston home to find their dejected father and mother talking. He’s just lost his VP job at Enron, the company allegedly responsible for one of the nation’s most devastating accounting frauds. So this show really boasts two real-life frauds in one.
Watch it: The Dropout on Hulu
Impeachment: American Crime Story
Season 3 of the FX American Crime Story anthology series moves from the more tabloid turf of The People v. O.J. Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace to the ultimate seat of American power, recounting the story of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton. Impeachment is based on A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President, by Jeffrey Toobin, who had his own precipitous fall into scandal, underscoring how power proves to be for some a ridiculous, ruinous aphrodisiac.
A different kind of soap opera drives this compulsively watchable, often heartbreaking drama about the devastations of OxyContin and the machinations of Purdue Pharma to peddle the drug as nonaddictive. Michael Stuhlberg amps the ick factor in his portrayal of scion Richard Sackler, neurotically driven to prove his worth by pushing the pain pill. The layers of complicity — in the medical establishment, in the government — make for infuriating watching. But it’s Michael Keaton, as the Appalachian doctor who gets hooked on Oxy, and Kaitlyn Dever, as one of his coal-mining patients led to addiction, that make it wrenching.
Watch it: Dopesick on Hulu
The Night Of
This brilliantly paced limited series follows the travails of Nasir “Naz” Khan, a young Pakistani American (Emmy winner Riz Ahmed), who flees the scene of a vicious murder. He says he didn’t do it but panicked. John Turturro does ace work as his down-and-out attorney. Bill Camp is the dogged detective who’s sure of his guilt. But that’s just the tip of the casting iceberg. Based on the Brit show Criminal Justice, the events unfold in the shadow of 9/11, reminding us that scandalous means outrageous. And this show invites us into the institutional, deep-rooted but also casual outrages of the criminal justice system.
Watch it: The Night Of on HBO Max
Lisa Kennedy, a regular AARP film critic, is a former Village Voice editor (1986-96) and Denver Post film critic (2003-15) who writes on popular culture, race and gender for Variety, The New York Times, Essence, American Theatre, the Denver Post, and others.