Yes. I feel like I had been waiting for something like this to come along and play me like a violin.
The short and spoiler free version:
Rating: 5 (out of 5)
Best for: Slice of life fans, grey-area fans, character exploration fans
Less so for: Those straight-up against watching any portrayal of the subject matter due to whatever objection/lack of interest
Summary: ‘Health club manager Sally and sales executive Carl meet and begin talking on their daily commute. But is there more to their interactions than friendship?’ -BBC iPlayer (Affair theme.)
The slightly longer version (spoilers after 3rd paragraph):
All the credit here goes to screenwriter David Nicholls and the stunning acting performances from all four leading roles, but especially the two protagonists acted by David Morrissey and Sheridan Smith.
I find myself at a loss at how to nitpick into any details because I was instantly swept into this two part, beautiful emotional journey. It simply compels you to take a side, or to feel torn because of how many sides you are simultaneously taking. A fantastic showcase of ‘show, don’t tell’, this is a very real-feeling and honest presentation of an otherwise much used subject topic.
Perhaps one of the flagship features of this particular drama is the camera’s sympathy with the other halves – the wife and fiancé in this case. There’s no ‘look at the chemistry here so we’re going to brush off their old partners ’til we need a plot twist’. The work environments and home lives of our main characters are nicely fleshed out without fuss or explanation. I must also praise the right length of this relationship drama – it could have maybe done one more episode if it had really wanted to, but this was just fine. As the writer himself commented: ‘…it’s very hard in a love story to do that [keep coming up with end-of-episode twists] without feeling as though you’re artificially sustaining it.’ [x] And this doesn’t try – it simply is.
The chemistry between them is natural, and as they gravitate towards each other in a cliché that somehow miraculously doesn’t really feel like one, all we can do is watch and imagine and hope. At each ‘Continue?’ point (starting when he suggests joining the gym) we face our own inward struggle with the desires of the characters. From the start their own relationships have difficulty – in his it is simply life stagnation, in hers there is a bit more obvious tension. There is a subtle difference between her youth and his age in their behaviour, especially in his hesitance at the start, but if anything it shows that internal age isn’t exactly determined by…age. We can feel them succumbing to the draw of ‘new love’, the promise of instant reward and the desire to believe that lies will protect others…and themselves. The key ‘Continue?’ at the end of the first episode – well the moment he reached across the table my heart jumped.
Of course, I will confess to having a soft spot for romantic/relationship dramas. But whilst that means I more easily enjoy mediocrity in the genre, it also means I can clearly recognise the distinction between good, better and best.
And praise the sweet realism, it even goes into the first intimacy they share. Lord knows I get tired of seeing advert-worthy sex in some of these things. Realism is often reserved for the gritty and dark, so it’s good to see it here in a lighter context. Nervousness and humour, a break, and a slower-but-still-nervous second attempt. Thank you.
My appreciation just continues into the second episode. After we’ve witnessed so many points where they could have turned back, the pillow talk is past that point, and the characters are aware of it too. Their awareness makes it fuller for me than young love’s naivety, and you can see the tension between the characters could easily evolve into longer term issues in their own relationship-escape-from-a-relationship.
Especially great moments come from Olivia Colman (acting Maggie, Carl’s wife). We are spared a screaming match; the pain is finely tuned upon discovery. And the I felt the same about us but I wouldn’t do it sentiment for her hits just right, not agonisingly self-righteous, but not resigned, keeping the moral question hinged equally on the situation and on chance, a buffet of feeling open to pick and choose your interpretation. Later in the hospital with Sally, the yes you shouldn’t have forgotten about me the wife, almost but not quite breaks the forth wall for viewers – because isn’t the temptation for us to do the same? Does the camera lead our bias or does our bias determine what we think we see more of on camera?
Finally, the ending. For me it hit a good balance between the false fulfillment of elopement, perfect reconciliation or a hanging, sad ending. Yes, it could have ended with him staring into the ocean, and left us drifting emotionally like the characters – but the actual ending, whilst more satisfying than that, doesn’t stop us thinking. Doesn’t stop the questions of regret, or secrecy, or the substance of love. It feels like running a finger over a smooth scab and then smiling, and leaving it. That’s the ending.
As tends to be the thing with these sorts of dramas, the impact is on first viewing. Rewatches…well they feel like remembering the past. The freshness, the realism, for the characters and us the viewers – that’s what sells this drama.