'Wanderlust': TV Review

Say yes.
10/19/2018

This British Netflix series finds something fresh in a well-worn genre as Toni Collette and Steven Mackintosh shake up their tired marriage.

There's a sneaky freshness to Wanderlust, the new British series co-produced with Netflix that tackles the subject of a marriage that has worn considerably around the edges and what, if anything, can be done about it — especially if the couple in question is enlightened.

Joy (Toni Collette) is a psychotherapist treating couples and individuals. Her husband Alan (Steven Mackintosh) is an English teacher. They've been married for more than 25 years. They have three kids — 25, 18 and 16. Joy and Alan are both aware of the frays and, like most couples, probably have been for years. 

And then one day it happens.

Joy, recovering from a bike accident that left her pelvis cracked, is settling in for an attempt at sex with Alan, who is very cognizant of the need to take things slow. In an awkward moment, Joy makes a joke, then suggests doing things differently, and Alan, growing frustrated, says in that very British way that's both amused and also slightly annoyed: "Don't try and needle away at my...craft."

"Your craft?" Joy reacts, delighted. "I'm sorry, skilled woodsman."

It's a funny moment, but only to one of them, and Alan, put off, let's out some pent-up feelings, including his belief that Joy has been milking her injury all along to avoid sex. Hurt, but wondering if maybe that's true, Joy buys a sexy outfit the next day and waits to spring it on Alan, with a little role-playing mixed in. She's in the mood, but Alan, who just wants to go to bed, misses the signals and Joy, rightly so, says she was just acting on his comment from the other night and looking to spice things up.

Alan: "I'm more than happy to try something new, I just don't want to try something completely and utterly fucking ridiculous."

And with that, creator and writer Nick Payne is off and running, exploring how two people who love each other but have contrasting needs, sexually, start to...wander. It's familiar territory but never seems that way here, even as Alan pursues his attraction to fellow English teacher Clare (Zawe Ashton) and Joy, rehabbing at the local pool, catches the eye of Marvin (William Ash), a divorced cop. 

Because Joy and Alan have worked hard at their marriage and used honesty to get them through the difficult parts, they both come clean about their misdeeds.

"Why did you do it?" Alan asks.

"Honestly?" replies Joy.

"What else is there at this point?" Alan says. And so Joy tells him: "I don't enjoy having sex with you."

At every turn when Wanderlust looks like it may bog down in the angst and melancholy of a fading marriage, Payne comes up with slight variations that keep it moving forward, exploring new territory, allowing Collette and Mackintosh, both perfectly cast here, to find the truth and the humor in their characters' choices. And as the title suggests, the main choice is to stay together but take on separate lovers.

Alan can't initially agree to this, even though both of them have already deepened their separate dalliances. Joy says the new arrangement is just them fixing what's wrong in their marriage.

"And by fix, you mean deliberately cheating on each other?" Alan asks. "Think of it this way," Joy says, the therapist in her looking for rationality. "When a car breaks down, you don't just — you check under the bonnet, have a root around, try to find the source of the [she waves her hands about] — then you set about fixing that specific problem. You don't just go out and buy a new car."

Alan: "I gotta say, it's a pretty shoddy analogy, Joy. Because what you're talking about is hitchhiking. It's leaving the car, our beautiful old car, on the side of the road and thumbing a life — and ideally, all things being equal, getting your rocks off with whoever happens to be behind the wheel."

The humor works because there's pain attached, and Wanderlust shifts, by the second hourlong episode (of six total), into a much more surprising and rewarding series as it tackles the challenges their decision brings — not only for Joy and Alan but for their kids. 

Soon, Alan and Joy have bought into the idea and are exploring it but hiding it from their mostly bored kids. As they fumble for an explanation for their plan to go out together but not actually be together, it just sounds like a bad and confusing lie. "Are you two having some kind of mutual stroke?" 18-year-old Naomi (Emma D'Arcy) asks.

It's a testament to Wanderlust's combination of consistently smart, emotionally nuanced moments and Collette and Mackintosh's ability to make them believable that it pushes forward and begins to feel like a fresh take on that time-worn narrative trope of marital disinterest brought on by time. Joy and Alan realize that instead of feeling embarrassment as they rehash their nightly adventures when they get home, they're actually getting a little turned on by it.

"Tell me truthfully," Alan asks one night. "Are we abnormal?"

Probably, but they are searching for a contextual examination of a new normal, which is what you can expect when two intellectuals aren't mad enough at each other to blow things up, and they feel like the love they've invested in through the years still matters.

There's a scene when the two are driving each other to their separate dates and the Bill Withers classic "Use Me" comes on the radio, and they both sing. In lesser hands, this would be an eye-roller, but director Luke Snellin, who does a consistently excellent job, uses the good will Payne has built up with these characters; the brief scene is more fun than trite, as both get into the song and laugh while singing along.

"I want to spread the news/ That if it feels this good getting used/ Oh, you just keep on using me/ Until you use me up."

Of course, nothing as complicated as love can survive a restructuring of the rules without some jealousy and some introspection — especially when the couple's kids also rewrite the accepted rules of love, sex and friendship. Wanderlust deepens as it goes down those avenues. 

Writer Payne and director Snellin keep the story intimate (even when one big early twist seems more convenience than coincidence), managing a series of creative choices that bring enlightenment and surprise to a well-worn concept as each episode unfolds.

Cast: Toni Collette, Steven Mackintosh, Zawe Ashton, Joe Hurst, Emma D'Arcy, Celeste Dring, Royce Pierreson, Sophie Okonedo

Created and written by: Nick Payne

Directed by: Luke Snellin

All episodes available on Netflix on Oct. 19