Why you should catch up with Doctor Foster
James R | On 03, Sep 2017
Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel? The cast list for Doctor Foster sounds like a match made in heaven. The show even opens with a sex scene, as we see Doctor Foster and her husband, Simon, go to proverbial Gloucester in full marital flow. But there’s trouble in paradise – and, after finding some lip balm and a blonde hair on her hubbie’s coat, our normally rational brunette becomes increasingly besotted with the idea that he might be having an affair.
It’s a compellingly familiar hook for a drama, and Mike Bartlett (who’s since given us Doctor Who’s suspenseful but sweet Knock Knock and stately but spiky drama King Charles III) dives into the domestic tensions with all the commitment of a veteran playwright. He has a knack for capturing the swinging emotions of a marriage on the rocks, charting the ups and downs across five engrossing episodes.
That fondness for spoken confrontation often descends into stagey cliche, relying on its cast to mask some increasingly illogical and contrived character decisions – in Doctor Foster’s world, the Hippocratic oath seems to mean ‘whatever can be done that’s unethical to ruin someone else’s life will be done’. Sure enough, by the halfway point, the GP is going AWOL, facing online complaints about threatening, abusive behaviour and bad patient care – as if her husband’s infidelity wasn’t enough to be dealing with already.
Fortunately, though, Suranne Jones is more than up to the task: she plays her troubled wife, mother and medical expert with an intensity that’s unwavering. She’s superb as the determined amateur detective, just determined enough to make you doubt her reliability (maybe those online complaints are real after all), and even better as the woman scorned, easily sliding into a disturbing, wild-eyed fury. It’s her ability to do both while remaining wounded and shocked that makes Doctor Foster work: you sympathise with her as much as you question the extremes to which she goes just to get vengeance.
Fresh from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, the brilliant Bertie Carvel smiles with enough gloss to make you wonder whether he’s putting the faithful husband act on – even when it’s all confirmed (very early on), he still manages to be more than just a two-dimensional villain, leaving you cheering on his demise, while still able to see the devastating impact Foster’s actions are having upon all those around her.
Strong support from Clare-Hope Ashitey as Carly, a patient who helps Gemma, and Thusitha Jayasundera as Ros, her friend who tries to remain impartial, are key to keeping the shades of grey visible throughout, while Jodie Comer as the other woman, Kate, brings an innocent and well-meaning charm that muddies the water further. It’s the scenes with Tom Taylor’s Tom, though, as Gemma becomes reckless behind a steering wheel, that really have you gripping the arms of your chair.
The result is a programme that matches the uneven bursts of dialogue with wildly shifting changes in tone, from disturbing drama to deliciously dark comedy. Bartlett’s toying with our mood, though, is impressively precise – and if Gemma’s refusal to have it out with Simon until the closing chapters becomes frustrating and unbelievable, it gives Suranne more of a chance to anchor things just on the right side of melodrama. It also gives the playwright the time to line up a genuinely nail-biting dinner scene, where every secret that gradually comes to light doesn’t so much bubble up to the surface as get blown into the air by Foster’s fierce thirst for justice.
At only five hours, binge-watch it all and Season 1’s pace and disorienting atmosphere comes to the fore, making riding the bumps along the way (hello to the intrusive soundtrack) as smooth as possible and the pay-off exceedingly satisfying – in itself, a strong achievement, given all the emotional and moral loose threads dangling about. By the time the credits have rolled, all the questions are resolved and answered, save for the mystery of how these people’s lives will recover, and what Doctor Foster will do next. With any luck, she’ll follow through on one brief comment about changing her name, so we never have to hear that nursery rhyme again.
Doctor Foster Season 1 and 2 is available on BBC iPlayer until May 2021. It is also available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.