Photo credit: BBC
Liam Cruivie | 7 September 2018
Besides its essential mediocrity, Nick Payne’s Wanderlust is utterly ill-equipped to tackle its overhyped subject matter.
BBC One’s new six part drama Wanderlust generated a flurry of speculative press both when it was announced and after the airing of the first episode. Adapted by playwright Nick Payne from his own play, television predictably freaked out over what drama brushed off. “Is Wanderlust the steamiest TV drama ever?” asked the Mail on Sunday, and yet it wasn’t precisely the sex which provoked the most reaction – rather a single sentence in the BBC promotional material, claiming that Wanderlust “asks whether lifelong monogamy is possible – or even desirable.”.
That startling statement is really the only reason I chose to review this show at all. As I suspected, it largely aligned itself with the usual fare of BBC evening drama. It isn’t remotely as explicit as was feared/hoped, as plenty of reviewers – with a certain air of disappointment – have noted. But forget all that: Is Lifelong Monogamy Possible/Desireable? That’s one helluva question, shocking mostly because it was asked at all.
Elsewhere in the Mail on Sunday, the BBC’s insinuation that the millions of people are snickering through their wedding vows provoked the inimitable Peter Hitchens into another litany of British society’s death throes. Much the same stuff as he constantly repeats elsewhere, this nevertheless gave us neat summation of precisely why this catastrophist believes we’re going down the tubes. Starting with marriage, we got family breakdown, the economy, police state tactics, drugs, urbanisation, Soviet comparisons, the lot. This outburst in turn gave Owen Jones the excuse to behave like the child he resembles and wind him up on twitter. This is about as much “moral panic” as a TV show can provoke in 21st century Britain.
So does Wanderlust have anything to say as regards monogamy’s desirability and/or very existence? Not in the first episode anyway. The show is admittedly very well paced and in episode one we build up from marriage to open-relationship rather skillfully. We squeeze in the “flatlining” marriage of Joy and Alan, the introduction of their respective bits-on-the-side, three subplots (two fairly fleshed out, one hardly), the first adulterous experiences and the resultant decision of our central couple that they would like to give an open relationship a go. I’m often convinced that pacing is more important in Television than any other medium, and it’s a fair feat to stuff the first episode like this and pull it off.
The show revolves around a couple, but wife Joy Richards (Toni Collette) is marginally more the star. A therapist stuck (well, not stuck at all as it happens) in a lustreless marriage to English teacher Alan (Steven Mackintosh), Joy is shown at the opening of the show slogging away in the conjugal bed and ultimately dumping a bucket of cold water over what we infer has been one of several sexual nonstarters. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I feel like our central couple’s names might be a reference to the landmark 1972 sexual manual The Joy of Sex, by Professor Alex (nearly Alan) Comfort; Joy’s profession, particularly, seems to corroborate this. Professor Comfort’s book was the genuine article in terms exploring a newly liberated sexuality (something Wanderlust clearly thinks it is), hailing from the days when people perhaps made a bit more of a go at supposedly impossible monogamy.
Broken up by what seems to be a fairly standard coming of age subplot involving the couple’s teenage son Tom (Jackson Hurst), the next half hour leads us, by way of another sexual disaster, to both Joy and Alan cheating on each other with suspicious synchronicity. We are supposed – I think – to infer that this is a first for both of them, hot on the heels of a temporary sexual dry patch. Alan, convinced by a couple of drinks and a joint, falls into bed with colleague Claire, whom viewers of my age will recognise as Zawe Ashton, who played the loutish Vod in the channel 4 Uni-sitcom Fresh Meat. An effortless comic actor, she swats away typecasting here with a solid performance. Joy, in a series of clichéd flirtations (rainy bus stop, ride home) with fellow fitness class attendee Marvin soon finds herself wanking him off as they proceed with preliminary small talk. This constitutes one of those quirky sex scenes where the topic of conversation (for it is a conversation) is anything but the sex itself, a kind of clichéd whip-smartness which is ultimately rather dull.
Later on, the couples – wide-eyed with guilt – confess their infidelities to each other in what is certainly the episode’s, and perhaps the show’s, pivotal scene. The brief argument had here is one of those strange arguments where both parties are tending towards the same outcome, only hindered by embarrassment and face-saving dithering. It revolves entirely around sex; the temporary dry patch which led to their infidelity being fielded as the sole reason their marriage is now in peril. “I don’t enjoy having sex with you … We’ve become unacceptably boring in bed.” argues Joy as both an excuse for cheating on Alan and a reason for a wanting to do it again. Alan, clearly seeing the prospect of leaping back between the sheets with Claire, doesn’t offer much resistance. Neither party exhibits a particular sense of betrayal at their spouse for cheating and asking to do it again.
At one point, I was rather taken aback by a bizarre conclusion reached by Alan – “We’ve not been having sex. For most people this would mean the end of their marriage!”. Now do excuse me, but is that really true? Do people – the British public, say – really consider the whole thing kaput when they – temporarily, mind – cease having intercourse? Does nobody consider the ship worth sailing beyond that point? I’ve never been married but – you know what? – I will venture to say that Alan’s bizarre conclusion is a heap of garbage.
It’s this essential selfishness of the characters which, I believe, makes the show so ill-equipped to answer the question the BBC claims it sets out to tackle. “For once in our lives we can do whatever the fuck we want and see what happens!” exclaims Joy in a crescendo of excitement. This is no jubilation of a subjugated women suddenly freed from the marriage cage; Joy is clearly more powerful than the rather simpering Alan (who is moved to confess his guilt, whereas Joy only confesses as a reaction to Alan’s confession). Rather, what this represents is an unrealistic portrayal of the kind of woman (wife and mother, too) who must be rather rare in our society. Alan, too, is an adulterer who is searching for a loop hole in his marriage vows so he can sleep with who he likes and not suffer the consequences that a committed relationship will always impose. We live in a time and place of unparalleled sexual freedom, but everyone knows instinctively that most people simply don’t behave like this – and I doubt they ever will.
I’m not saying – and I don’t expect – that the show will go on to show Joy and Alan’s open relationship as terrific fun with no consequences. But however it proceeds, it’s doomed from the start to properly tackle this issue. Joy and Alan haven’t arrived at the open relationship from a starting point of honesty and respect, they’ve both betrayed each other, and have shifted the paradigm to cover their arses. The only real point that you could say this show makes about real marriage is that, in any relationship, one feels desire for people other than their partner. Yet what an inconsequential point that is to make. But of course they do! Everyone wants to fuck other people. Abstaining from doing so is the relationship part, the commitment part, the love part.
Besides this ultimate flaw in the show’s raison d’etre, it seems that anywhere else it might succeed is terribly in vain (how catastrophically this show bites off more than it can chew). For all the fuss, Wanderlust is thoroughly mediocre television. The tone, for example, is pretty uneven. One minute we find ourselves transitioning between scenes with wide sweeping shots and gloomy indie music only to wind up with a bathetic shift to some comic hanky-panky such as Claire walking in on a colleague pleasuring himself to a mail order catalogue of bikini models.
Ed Cumming remarked in The Independent that the show is “once or twice very funny”. Precisely twice, actually. Firstly when one of Joy’s patients relates his expectations against the reality of therapy, “I’m still waiting for you to wheel out the [chaise longue] and I’m lyin’ down lookin’ up and you’ve got a wiry beard and a fuckin’ pocket watch. I’m telling some story about my dad’s pendulous cock ‘n’ balls”, and secondly when a recently separated neighbour, and subplot star, decides to cope with his grief by inviting Alan along to Kung-Fu classes.
The show can be a little on-the-nose, too, with its rather futile aim. Calling Joy “Joy” and making her a therapist is a part of this, so too is her remark that “Generally speaking, we are very bad in this country at discussing our private lives in public. We feel tremendous shame. Too ashamed of our needs.”
Well, if Wanderlust sets out to show that married people are often ashamed of their “need” to sleep around then perhaps it has a reason for being. That’s not what the BBC said, however, and if life-long monogamy is really worth examining, then we would do well to look elsewhere for a proper fictional treatment of the matter.
Wanderlust airs on Tuesdays at Nine O’Clock on BBC One and is available on the BBC iplayer.
Internationally, it is available on Netflix.
Follow Liam Cruivie on twitter at @SwansOfAyr