The conclusion of Netflix’s Wanderlust, about a middle-aged couple who attempt an open marriage, is meant to be bittersweet, but it mostly rings hollow. Alan and Joy Richards (Steven Mackintosh and Toni Collette) concoct a strictly physical arrangement that yields dalliances that unfold like car wrecks in slow motion—plodding affairs that end, inevitably, in disaster. Yet by the end of the six-episode series, Alan and Joy appear relatively unscathed, having gotten what they wanted but perhaps not what they deserve.
As Alan and Joy string along lovers, nothing on screen suggests that the couple’s arrangement is more than, as one of Joy’s dates suggests, mere greed. When she first suggests an open marriage, Joy overlooks at least one outcome which, as soon as the dates begin, becomes highly likely: that she, Alan, or both will eventually hurt the people they aim to use as sexual outlets. The scenes in which Joy and Alan lay the groundwork for their experiment focus earnestly on their emotional bond, and their need for physical fulfillment, but fail to adequately establish the stakes or acknowledge that Joy—who’s a psychotherapist—understands them. Series creator and writer Nick Payne views Alan and Joy through a doggedly sympathetic prism, as victims of time, their own monogamous commitment, and human nature.
An intentionally uncomfortable segment of one episode finds the couple matter-of-factly explaining their situation to respective lovers. Alan and Joy assume that their honesty will be met with gratitude. Here, Payne allows Joy to field a rare rebuke, as her date accuses her of greed. Notably, the exchange is presented as a mere hiccup for Joy, who seems disappointed but no more self-aware. Clare (Zawe Ashton), Alan’s colleague and lover, is less offended than confused. Proving that she isn’t the show’s only naïve character, she agrees to continue seeing him, with the caveat that she doesn’t want to break up his marriage, and doesn’t want to create problems at work.
There are a number of well-observed, heartfelt relationships in Wanderlust, which, ironically, don’t include Joy or Alan. Payne grasps the nuances of youthful infatuation, and bestows the Richards’ three children with rewarding romantic arcs. Eighteen-year-old Naomi (Emma D’Arcy) develops a sweet and layered companionship with the family’s neighbor, a middle-aged woman; the friendship begins with brief, shy exchanges and eventually hints at something more sexual in nature. Tom (Joe Hurst), a relatable teen, awkwardly and fitfully begins to have feelings for a childhood friend whom he previously overlooked while desperately trying to lose his virginity, while the twentysomething Laura (Celeste Dring), jaded by dating apps and bad hook-ups, lucks into a restorative fling with one of Joy’s patients. Each of these budding relationships is pregnant with possibility, which Payne undoubtedly intends to contrast with Joy and Alan’s love lives. The sharpest contrast is between the simplicity of Joy and Alan’s relationship, which faces a lone obstacle, and the more complicated emotional affairs of their children.
Wanderlust ultimately focuses on the correlation between sex and love, and its lengthy sex scenes allow the directors to consistently locate a character’s emotions mid-coitus. When Joy jerks off a guy she’s only just met at the gym, an unbreaking shot of her face reveals invigoration and trepidation in equal measure. Alan appears to be just a mild-mannered teacher with a drooping libido, but in bed with Clare, he’s vital and ebullient. The show’s raciest moments reveal what Joy and Alan must have once enjoyed. Yet, as their experiment begins to founder, and they inevitably return to one another, it’s not clear how much has changed—only that they’re less desirable than they imagine, and that their situation is less complicated than they think. After so much drama, the series arrives at the underwhelming conclusion that the grass only seems greener on the other side.