Wanderlust begins with a longtime married couple in the throes of bad sex that doesn’t end well. Joy (Toni Collette) was recently in a bicycling accident and hasn’t been in the mood for a while. Alan (Steven Mackintosh) thinks she’s just making excuses and is actually no longer attracted to him. Later in that first episode, after each has a sexual encounter outside their marriage, Joy proposes something: What if they try seeing other people — purely for physical reasons — but remain happily married to each other? They can maintain a stable relationship, keep their family unit together, and still get some on the side. It’s a marital fantasy, but maybe they can make it work?
The first two or three episodes of Wanderlust, which first aired on the BBC and debuts Friday on Netflix, do indeed have the appeal of fantasy. We get to watch a lot of sex scenes involving a pair of attractive people rediscovering the excitement of intimacy with someone new. Then we get to watch more sex scenes as Joy and Alan come home from their evenings out and discover that their extracurricular activities are making them hornier for each other than they’ve been in years. But that’s not the only form of soft porn that Wanderlust has to offer. This show will satisfy those with a fashion fetish — once she starts “dating” again, Joy reveals a wardrobe filled with lovely goldenrod-velvet blazers and form-fitting dresses — and those easily seduced by food. (There’s a mouthwatering sequence that involves a roasted turkey, and another in which Joy devours a quartet of fresh muffins as if she’s on a mission from the baked-good gods.) Even those who get aroused by the idea of a backyard bungalow that doubles as a home office will find Wanderlust satisfying. (Hi, my name is Jen, and my kink is a kickass she shed.)
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that Wanderlust is a pure romp that provides nothing more than a steamy sneak peek into open relationships. This is a legitimate drama, which means that everything is much more complicated than that, especially for Joy, a therapist who has some buried psychological issues of her own to confront. In the six episodes written by Nick Payne (The Sense of an Ending) — Wanderlust consists of only six episodes, a very manageable binge! — the seemingly put-together layers of Joy are slowly peeled away, a process mirrored by Collette, whose performance is all happy smiles and positive rhetoric until her character is forced to become truly vulnerable. In the fifth installment, a two-hander bottle episode that consists almost entirely of a session between Joy and her own therapist, played by Sophie Okonedo, we finally get to the roots of Joy’s issues, which are revealed in a raw back-and-forth filled with long pauses, hesitant dips into Joy’s memory bank, and a cathartic expression of sorrow and guilt. Wanderlust is worth watching solely to see the gifted and luminous Collette do her thing.
Wanderlust also makes an admirable effort to subvert gender stereotypes. While we might expect a heterosexual man in an open relationship to start coming on to any sentient being with a vagina, Alan immediately gets involved with Claire (Zawe Ashton), a fellow teacher at his private school who understands the parameters of the relationship, but, like Alan, falls harder than she should. And even though society tells us that women tend to be guided by their hearts rather than libidos, it’s Joy who finds herself drawn to multiple men and playing the field with a seemingly more carefree attitude than her husband.
Even though this is an hour-long drama, there are also some genuinely funny moments in the series, including an ’80s-themed school fundraiser where Alan, dressed as Adam Ant, and Claire, as Prince, double date with Joy as Madonna, who is accompanied by her boy toy, Marc (Dylan Edwards), who decks himself out like Indiana Jones. When Adam and Joy get into a major argument afterward while still in costume, their words are deadly serious. But the shots of a tired Adam Ant and Like a Virgin–era Madonna shouting at each other give the scene an amusing poignancy.
There are definitely elements of the series that strain the limits of believability. The idea that Alan and Joy would think it’s a good idea for them to double date with their respective partners, which happens more than once, is odd, especially since they both seem sensible enough to realize that their alternate love lives should probably remain separate. The ease with which they both find people to share beds with also seems a little implausible, but it’s an implausibility that is typical of this genre. Every time I watch a show like this one or The Affair, I always think: Is it really this easy to find people to engage in adultery with? Maybe it is, but I am sure some people who have a hard time dating would beg to differ.
While Joy and Alan are certainly the primary focus, Wanderlust also spends time tracking the love lives of their three young-adult children: the recently dumped Laura (Celeste Dring), who inadvertently gets involved with Jason (Royce Pierreson), one of her mother’s patients; Naomi (Emma D’Arcy), a lesbian who awakens feelings in Rita (Anastasia Hille), a neighbor and friend of Joy and Alan; and Tom (Joe Hurst), a high-schooler who finds himself in a love triangle that’s basically Some Kind of Wonderful redux. In all three of these subplots, the beats are predictable enough to gauge exactly where things are going long before they get there.
Perhaps Payne included them to make a point about how relationship patterns are established when we’re young, and how instinctive it is for anyone at any stage of life to seek comfort, escapism, and a sense of identity in other people. Ultimately, though, Wanderlust is about the long-married couple at its center. More specifically, it’s about Joy, a woman who is still trying to figure out how to grasp and hold onto the emotion that’s highlighted right there in her own first name.