It will be a shame if Wanderlust (BBC One) is seen only as a notorious cause of ruffled feathers and eyes out on stalks. The opening scenes, it’s true, displayed a sophomoric eagerness to provoke. When not one but two middle-aged characters were caught taking advantage of themselves, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a script bent on pleasuring itself.
But no, this is a bracingly frank sex comedy which dares to confront the lean marital years when the pilot light has gone out in the bedroom and even the raunchiest role play won’t stoke the boiler. The troubled couple are Joy and Alan (Toni Collette and Steven Mackintosh) who, having both newly enjoyed the thrill of adultery, decided to embark on a therapeutic course of further extramarital sex.
Collette is a joy as Joy. Her face is an elastic masquerade of gulps and gawps. When her doctor told her not to have athletic sex after her bike accident, her features struggled not to announce that there was zero chance of that. Mackintosh, who has played a lot of weaselly beta-husbands, knew exactly how to embody the moral hypocrite who thinks some betrayals are worse than others.
The script is by Nick Payne, another playwright sent to shake things up in TV drama (see also Mike Bartlett’s Doctor Foster). There were flashbacks, dream sequences and pin-sharp school banter about Jonathan Franzen, body fluids and female masturbation.
As a comedy of awkwardness it doesn’t let up much. But it’s raw too. Joy is a psychotherapist whose profession Payne has taken the trouble to portray respectfully. In one exquisitely painful scene, Andy Nyman beautifully played a man so stumped by the breakdown of his relationship that he could barely finish a sentence. At the other end of the sofa his glowering partner refused to even start one.
As for Joy’s much trumpeted handiwork, it rang emotionally true, and that is surely the best kind of screen sex. Her line is that we’re bad at talking about these things in this country. Wanderlust is likely to trigger a lot of conversations. As for the solution adopted by Joy and Alan, don’t necessarily try it at home.