From 2020, sex education will be compulsory in schools. But sex is a lesson tied intrinsically to the growth, or decline, of a relationship. While Channel 4 has delved into these waters with Naked Attraction, a dubious dating programme based around looking at people in the nude, and Let’s Talk About Sex, a Gogglebox-style series that sees Danny Dyer (and others) discuss having a roll-around, Netflix has impressed with two more thoughtful shows. The first is, of course, Sex Education, a coming-of-age comedy with a refreshingly mature bedroom manner. The second? Wanderlust, a co-production with BBC One.
The drama teases on the surface, as husband and wife Joy and Alan start to look elsewhere to get a boost for their flatlining marriage. But beneath the scandalised headlines about the show lies a well written six-parter from playwright Nick Payne, who balances spiky humour with a deceptively layered exploration of infidelity and commitment.
The always-brilliant Toni Colette and Steven Mackintosh sell the shifts in tone, supported by a scene-stealing Zawe Ashton as Alan’s colleague, a teacher who finds herself in an embarrassing, inappropriate situation at school. Communication, consent and chemistry reel us in, as we see the trio embark into open waters, and the show and the characters don’t shy away from serious questions that their entanglements raise. Can you have meaningful sex without love? And is it possibly to be romantically involved with one person while being faithful to another?
As love lives cross paths in increasingly messy ways, Joy and Alan find themselves subject to the scrutiny of others, as well as themselves, from work colleagues to best friends. Their eldest daughter, Laura, and son, Tom, also add detail to the drama, from overlapping interests to the question of whether it’s possible to be more than friends with your BFF.
Things become a little meandering as the show reaches its closing episodes, and Payne’s script, based on his own play, suffers from its intentionally slow pacing (one monologue about toothbrushes is a poetic licence too far). But that cautious, careful approach also means that Colette, Ashton and Mackintosh – not to mention Paul Kaye in a small but vital supporting role – have the space to make an impact. One hour is essentially a bottle episode inside a therapy session, giving Colette the chance to fill the screen with her remarkable, shifting presence.
By the time our lead couple have begun to get a grip on what, exactly, they want, Wanderlust grows into a superbly observed study of missed opportunities, regrets and passions, one that grapples with death and trauma as well as marital pressures and domestic tedium. The fact that it does all of this through a subject that is often taboo is testament to how seriously it takes its topic, treating what might have been a tasteless affair with grown-up nuance. An accomplished counterpart to Sex Education, this is adult TV in more ways than one.
Wanderlust is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.