It is strange to remember, in this age of full-frontal, heavy breathing, American premium-cable sex madness, that respectable old PBS was once the hottest network around, thanks primarily to the importation of British series whose perceived seriousness let a little nudity or an “adult” situation sneak onto our otherwise demure domestic airwaves.
Oh, they can seem modest enough with their famous British reserve, but you don’t have to dig far to find they are as repressed and obsessed as we are by things of the flesh. Three new imported series mix mystery — another traditional British specialty — and desire to varying degrees.
Adapted and inflated by Nick Payne from his 2010 play of the same name, “Wanderlust,” a BBC co-production now streaming on Netflix, fits one scene of unsuccessful intercourse and two of comically interrupted masturbation within its first six minutes. (Other characters talk about masturbation for another three.) We are therefore waiting for good sex to happen.
The series begins with a card defining its title — “strong longing for or impulse toward wandering” — as if that word had somehow fallen out of common use, and the main point wasn’t the punning “lust” in the title. This is a show about sex — as urge, satisfaction, distraction. (And love too, but mostly about sex.) Toni Collette and Steven Mackintosh play Joy and Alan Richards, a psychotherapist and English teacher, respectively, and parents of three children, mostly grown. Having tired of each other, sexually but not personally, they decide to try other people while staying together.
Well, you can imagine.
This is a show about sex — as urge, satisfaction, distraction.
Fortunately, they are not our only company. Their kids’ stories, which figure into the tightly woven tapestry, are the more compelling, perhaps because they carry only a little bit of baggage — a backpack, as opposed to a full set of Samsonite. Daughters Naomi (Emma D’Arcy) and Laura (Celeste Dring) are stumbling out of sadness into new relationships. Teenage son Tom (Joe Hurst) is almost all innocence and only a little experience; his relationship with best friend Michelle (Isis Hainsworth), who has a crush on him, and Jennifer (Anya Cholotra), on whom he has a crush, is exactly the stuff of what seems like a thousand teenage comedies, running back through John Hughes all the way to Andy Hardy; but it is gold stuff too.
What the series does particularly well is catch what it feels like to be on the verge of intimacy — the pause on the doorstep, the strangeness of another person’s space, the charged moment that leads to (or away from) a first kiss.
Characters head off on their various journeys of self-exploration and examination. (Aren’t we the real mysteries, after all?) The penultimate episode is a real-time, hourlong therapy session, with Joy as the client and Sophie Okonedo playing the therapist — anyone missing “In Treatment” should be pleased — which is, in its way, a kind of interrogation with more comfortable chairs.
If none of the couple’s extramarital pairings — most notably Alan and his younger colleague Claire (Zawe Ashton) — make particular sense, their own pairing doesn’t quite make sense, either, in part because Collette comes off the screen more forcefully than Mackintosh. Indeed, her performance leaves an impression that amplifies and even justifies Joy’s bad choices — you import the magnificence of the player into the part. The last minute of the series is nothing but the literally naked Collette, and she makes of it a little symphony of complicated reactions that won’t let you rest.
The flamboyantly named Jed Mercurio, who created the well regarded police procedural “Line of Duty,” is the creator of “Bodyguard,” a conspiracy thriller beginning Wednesday on Netflix. Richard Madden (Robb Stark in “Game of Thrones,” which will mean the world to some) plays Sgt. David Budd, a tight-jawed security officer who, after averting the terrorist bombing of a London-bound train, with only a cool head and powers of persuasion, is assigned to guard Home Secretary Julia Montague (the ever-welcome Keeley Hawes). She’s a Conservative hawk, and he’s a veteran who’s had enough of war.
It’s not giving away anything to say that Madden and Montague become involved in a way they might not have expected but any viewer will, even one who had not seen that similarly titled Whitney Houston flick. Things get sexy, I mean, which makes them dangerous. And things also get dangerous, which makes them sexier.
Some elements of the series struck me as odd, including what seems an endorsement of the surveillance state, and certain climactic revelations had me talking to the screen. But the action is well mounted and the tension tightly wound; it uncoils, when it does, with a satisfying snap. Interestingly, apart from Madden, all the best roles — the power roles — have been written for women, including Pippa Haywood as Budd’s superior officer and Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command.
And so to PBS. Sunday brings Wilkie Collins’ 1859 “The Woman in White” in the sort of classic literary adaptation that still has no ongoing American counterpart. It piles on chance encounters, strange resemblance, a secret society and clever heroines such as Jane Austen crafted 40 years before, but even pluckier and less conventional.
Handsome, only slightly bohemian Walter Hartwright (Ben Hardy) takes a post teaching art at a far-flung estate to half-sisters Marian Halcombe (Jessie Buckley, dark and earthy) and Laura Fairlie (Olivia Vinall, light and airy) under the indifferent care of their self-involved, Uncle Frederick (Charles Dance, having fun). Frederick plans to marry off Laura to one Sir Percival Glyde (Dougray Scott), whom you will correctly assess as bad news even before you meet him.
Adapted in five parts, the better for you to soak in its candlelit atmosphere, it’s a story made for serialization, and, unlike some Victorian television adaptations, it doesn’t employ garish audio-visual effects to galvanize the modern viewer. Screenwriter Fiona Seres follows the outlines of the novel (and finds a way to maintain its multiple-testimony narrative), with some economical compression and original elaboration in the denouement.
Seres has also shaved 20 years and a couple of hundred pounds off the villainous Count Fosco, as Collins wrote him, to sex it up a bit. Sydney Greenstreet played him, appropriately, in a 1948 American version; here he is played by Riccardo Scamarcio, aiming smoldering looks and saucy imprecations Marian’s way and getting all up in her personal space. And where Collins goes on at length about Marian’s looks — not in a nice way — the producers have got the very handsome Buckley to play her, a choice that is hard to argue with on any other account. She’s a splendid heroine.
When: Now streaming
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
When: Any time, starting Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
‘The Woman in White’
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd