There’s nothing like the catalytic trauma of being hit by a car to make you reevaluate your body and what it’s worth to you. When Joy Richards (Toni Collette) has a cycling accident, a chain reaction of sex follows. Not all at once. Nothing Caligulan. But it invites opportunities to look elsewhere, try new things, and react when those things bounce back. It’s like how holidays precipitate breakups because you’re painfully aware of how good you should be feeling. When physical therapy starts, you’re made acutely aware of your body’s imperfection and dissatisfaction.
And in Wanderlust, it’s a family affair—if you’ll pardon the pun. Joy’s husband, Alan (Steven Mackintosh), and their kids, Tom (Joe Hurst), Naomi (Emma D’Arcy), and Laura (Celeste Dring), are all worrying around in relationships that are often funny, but more often intimate, deliberate, and brutal.
Everyone’s failing to fuck, and it’s heartbreaking. Then, everyone starts fucking and there are more complicated stakes—such the central couple discovering the joy of an open marriage, or at least trying it out. It’d be a disaster if the series acted like the idea was reinventing the wheel, as if monogamy hadn’t been a sputtering flame for some people since, well, monogamy, so it’s nice that it tries a different tack. Opening a relationship isn’t new, but it’s certainly novel and scary to these monotone Brits. Add some dryly hilarious mixed metaphors and this is one of the more amusing conversations about sexual frustration (and its roots) on TV, thanks in no small part to Collette and Mackintosh pulling double duty as people both bloodied and liberated.
Wanderlust, with subtle precision, captures the cringeworthy honesty of Girls, except that series’ stunted, immature navel-gazing has been replaced by the grown-up deadpan of Catastrophe. It’s not as inventive and insane as the former, nor as delightfully mundane as the latter, splitting the difference with mostly familiar situations that are sometimes handled with originality. But it’s sharp, sharp, sharp. It’s willing to have frank (if roundabout) conversations, written so naturally that they may cause stress dreams. That’s because writer/creator Nick Payne is a master at that distinctly British ability to ramble on and say very little while still conveying quite a bit.
Building out the conversational ecosystem of the characters and their world nourishes this stifled culture beyond two or three characters. Therapists have therapists and the relationships of side characters stack into a beautifully messy undergrowth, thanks in part to breakout turns by Hurst (that stammering little muffin), D’Arcy (emotive and subtle), and Royce Pierreson (so effortlessly charming as to seem lazy). Enough seeds are planted to keep me invested for the duration while the flora already blooming is riveting enough to keep me locked, David Attenborough-like, to the proceedings, however dull they may seem on the surface. It’s quite British, did that come across?
Also distinctly British is how the show’s shot with an understated horniness that eventually boils over. It’s the kind of single-track mind that—unless it’s actively processing someone’s anecdote or daydream—is keyed in on connection (or lack thereof). Long tailpipes rev while rain pours down. Neighbors spy on each other. The only moments are those of no return. Conversations cut so infrequently we begin to wonder if we have crushes on the characters, or if they have crushes on each other. Or, hell, why not both. Then: explosion.
Newfound self-confidence bursts into fits of teenage pawing. Self-doubt kicks down the door wielding the double barrels of age and shame. These two battle with equal visual intensity (the series even uses a split-screen scene almost exactly like one of the more visually exciting moments of Better Call Saul), overwhelming some of the pacing problems with sheer force of will. It’s unfair to other, perhaps less lackadaisical shows that Wanderlust gets to cut back and forth to a sexually ravenous Collette, whose potent gazes and head-jutting, toothy, pleased-as-punch, grins work in beautiful, seductive tandem.
Everyone shines here, with directing duties on the six-episode season (bless that country), split between Luke Snellin and Lucy Tcherniak, full of eye-catching, unique shots. The latter’s use of mirrors to evoke the out-of-body, inner-monologue part of sex that can occur—especially with these characters, as they use it for all sorts of selfish means—is as stylish as setting the crushing penultimate episode almost entirely in a session of therapy.
Some of the closing emotions, especially with the relationship drama amplified by the conservative society in which they live, don’t quite stick, simply because Wanderlust skews more towards expectation here (of course this is how people would react!) than in the honest, engrossing details that came before. A little trite, a little slow, a little orthodox: We’ve all made those mistakes when it’s come to sex and love. At least Wanderlust gets most of it right, and has a hell of a time getting us off.
Wanderlust premieres Friday, Oct. 19 on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.