From 2020, sex education will be compulsory in schools. But sex is a non-stop learning experience, one that involves getting to know yourself and other people, as well as how you fit together, and it’s a lesson tied intrinsically to the growth, or decline, of a relationship. While Channel 4 has delved into these waters with Naked Attraction, a 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 excelled with no fewer than two thoughtful, moving and surprising shows. The first is, of course, Sex Education, a coming-of-age comedy with a refreshingly progressive bedroom manner. The second? Wanderlust, a co-production with BBC One.
The drama teases titillation on the surface, as husband and wife Joy and Alan start to look elsewhere to get a boost for their flatlining sex life. But beneath the steamy scenes that initially dominated headlines about the show lies a fantastically 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 the questions that their entanglements raise. Can you have meaningful sex without love? Or meaningful love without sex? And is it possibly to be romantically involved with one person while being faithful and dedicated 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, desires 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 sex is testament to how seriously it takes intercourse, treating what might have been a smutty affair with maturity and nuance. An accomplished counterpart to Sex Education, this is adult TV in every sense of the word.
Wanderlust is available on BBC iPlayer until 9th April 2019.