Toni Collette is having an extraordinary year. The “Sixth Sense” and “United States of Tara” star is garnering well-deserved awards buzz for her “Hereditary” performance, and just as Oscar season ramps up, here comes another powerful reminder of her acting prowess. “Wanderlust” is a Netflix and BBC co-production that has nothing to do with David Wain’s 2012 film of the same name that starred Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd, and Justin Theroux, though this six-part drama series also studies an onscreen couple who’s looking to keep their relationship afloat.
Equal parts empathetic and searing, creator Nick Payne treats his characters honestly and, in turn, crafts a first season both heartening and tragic. Collette is its center, guiding the ship through turbulent emotional seas with assurance. There’s plenty to admire about “Wanderlust,” but it easily could have drifted into the vast unknown of Netflix’s content ocean without her precise, textured turn. In one pivotal episode, she steers the vessel almost entirely by herself.
The pilot episode of “Wanderlust” is almost a head fake. Joy (Collette) and Alan (Steven Mackintosh) are comfortably married with three kids — too comfortably married, really. Sex has become mechanical and each of them are itching for something new, something forbidden. For Alan, he’s happy in the blissful monotony of marriage, but he’s turned off by Joy’s disinterest in him. Paradoxically, Joy’s disinterest in Alan is driven by his adherence to repetition. She wants to mix things up — including, for starters, a more adventurous sex life — but she’s also in recovery from a crippling bicycle accident.
Within that accident lies the narrative’s secret ambitions, wrapped up in Joy’s personal history with relationships, her parents, and loss. But that doesn’t start to spill out until after she and Alan make some bold new decisions. Alan confesses his interest in a colleague at his school, Claire (Zawe Ashton), while Joy simultaneously expresses a pressing desire for a random dude in her swimming class. In a well-written back-and-forth by Payne, the couple comes to an agreement: They’re going to have sex with other people, in order to save their marriage.
Sex to save the marriage, you say? “Wanderlust” initially argues for its plausibility, but it doesn’t treat an open marriage as a cure-all for a complacent sex life. Written entirely by Payne (whose previous work was largely on the U.K. stage) and featuring Collette as an associate producer, the hourlong drama is willing to engage with the complicated attachments formed from not only flirting and frivolity, but from the freedom associated with both. Joy and Alan suddenly find themselves in a new world where they’re not restricted from following their urges, and that leads to scary, surprising consequences for them and their prospective new partners.
Soon, these overlapping, confusing, and conflicting urges reach a boiling point and their deeper motivations are disclosed. Dredging up the specific points is made easier since Joy is a therapist, specializing in relationship counseling — a writerly go-to for onscreen emotional exposition — but rarely does the device feel like a crutch. Her therapy sessions are well-paced and engaging. Beyond giving a voice to her inner thoughts, they push the story into gripping drama with the faintest hint of a mystery to unravel. Produced by a slew of experienced British TV EPs, including Roanna Benn and Jude Liknaitzky (both from “Doctor Foster”), and Lucy Richer (“A Very English Scandal”), the episodes are markedly confident and finely cut. (Such editing efficiency is a rarity on Netflix, but less so with its BBC co-productions.)
That being said, “Wanderlust” comes back to Collette, who oh-so-matter-of-factly owns the screen. Given ample room to build a fresh character by a script that consciously subverts gender stereotypes — like so many male TV protagonists before her, Joy is the one looking for casual, rollicking sex, and she’s often left alone to brood or reevaluate her choices — Collette quickly but thoroughly deconstructs her guarded character. Joy goes from bubbly excitement and unchecked passion to a vulnerable ball of anxiety. She’s capable of succinctly rationalizing a very risky decision, but then she’s confronted with the truth behind those desires in complex, satisfying fashion.
Collette takes Joy through each stage with the conviction needed to believe in her plan and the vigor required to see why she might be driven by something deeper than boredom. The actress has more time to build and break down her character in “Wanderlust” than she does in “Hereditary,” but the efficiency and authenticity in each transformation is striking. Always present, Collette invites the audience to go along with her on Joy’s little trial, and watching her react to the character’s discoveries is as gratifying as discovering them yourself. “Wanderlust” lists the definition of its title underneath the title card in every episode — “strong longing for, or an impulse toward wandering” — but it is never lost. Not with Collette at the wheel.
“Wanderlust” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.