Joy and Alan are having sex. Ah yes, I’ve heard about that, the sex. “Is BBC’s Wanderlust the steamiest TV ever?” asked the Mail on Sunday, not entirely approvingly.
Actually there is not a lot of steam coming off either Joy (Toni Collette) or Alan (Steven Mackintosh). More like cold sweat. They undress awkwardly, Joy hands Alan her crutch and undoes her wrist brace. Then he is on top of her. “Ready?” he asks. “As I’ll ever be,” she replies.
It doesn’t go well. Joy’s face says a little bit bored/a little bit pained. “What?” Alan asks.
“No, it’s good,” she lies. Oh, and this is all intercut with footage of Joy getting knocked off her bicycle, the reason for the crutch and the wrist brace. It – the accident – certainly isn’t helping. It is the opposite of the erotic fixation with tragedy as seen in JG Ballard’s Crash, this is more like anti-symphorophilia, if you will.
She brings up his technique, and that doesn’t help, either. “I’m not the one with the problem, Joy, so don’t try and needle away at my craft,” he says.
“Your craft?” she laughs. “I’m sorry, skilled woodsman.”
Skilled woodsman, that is funny. These two are good together. Apart from the rubbish sex. And that is the point. Wanderlust, adapted by Nick Payne from his own play, is an exploration of the connections and differences between intimacy and sex. And questions whether monogamy is even desirable. No wonder the Mail on Sunday is getting all hot under the collar.
So Joy and Alan give up. I mean, on this particular attempt, for now (although I think we know where this is all heading). Alan goes to work, and this time sex becomes a solitary activity, not concluded because of an interruption by his teenage son, Tom (Joe Hurst), who is setting out, wobbly, on his own sexual journey.
Over at the school where Alan teaches, his colleague Claire (Zawe Ashton) has walked in on a male colleague masturbating over an underwear catalogue. This brings Alan and Claire closer together, oddly. Nothing like a potential tribunal to move things along. One thing leads to another; a drink, Claire’s car breaks down (is that like a very mild form of symphorophilia?), a failed jump-start in the rain, a tow back to her place, then inside for a warm-up spliff and an introduction, for Alan, to Warren G’s Regulate, every teacher’s favourite G-funk track, the Ofcom anthem. It also contains a car crash, but that’s probably by the by. More importantly, it leads to sex, as Warren G often does.
Joy, meanwhile, is getting flirty with a guy in her hydrotherapy class. “Wet,” she replies when he – Marvin – asks how she is. Marvin’s a copper, Hertfordshire constabulary CID, and that certainly doesn’t harm his appeal. She says she will see him next week. “You will,” he says.
In fact, they see each other before next week. She is at the bus stop, in the rain, with a broken bike (cycling isn’t Joy’s forte). Marvin’s passing, gives her a lift home where she tosses him off in her office. Joy’s a therapist, she understands relationships.
Finally, at the end of the first episode (of six), after fessing up to each other, Joy and Alan realise what has been clear to everyone else for a while: that their marriage is opening up, to others. It has been a bit of an effort getting to this point; that might have something to do with turning a 90-minute play into six hours of television. Also … perhaps … all the pausing … in the delivery … of the dialogue. Is that about sounding authentic, like actual, real dialogue? Maybe, but I also find it a teeny bit annoying – affected and theatrical.
Stellar performances otherwise, from Collette and Mackintosh. And it is not just about Joy, Alan and their new sex partners. Tom is promising, as is his best friend, who is clearly in love with him. Also some of Joy’s clients, trying to patch up their relationships. Hey, maybe they should be looking outside, as well as in?
Everything’s opening up, exciting new possibilities. Maybe consensual infidelity is the answer. A breakdown seems to help things along – vehicular, rather than mental. Also water – rain, hydrotherapy, whatever, come on in, it is lovely. These are some takeaway messages. Oh, and screw the Mail on Sunday, too, while you’re at it.