He­len Razer on why Net­flix’s Wan­der­lust is a turnoff

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - HE­LEN RAZER is a writer and broad­caster. She is The Sat­ur­day Pa­per’s tele­vi­sion critic and gar­den­ing colum­nist.

While Net­flix se­ries such as Wan­der­lust have made mid­dle-aged women – and their hitherto la­tent de­sires – sud­denly vis­i­ble, He­len Razer doubts these shows are en­tirely worth see­ing.

All happy fam­i­lies are alike, but each un­happy fam­ily is un­happy in its own way. This may well have been true for Rus­sian nov­el­ists of the 19th cen­tury, and for many Western film­mak­ers of the 20th. It is not quite so true for Net­flix, the prin­ci­pal stylist of all fam­ily un­hap­pi­ness in our present mo­ment. Hap­pily, happy fam­i­lies re­main too alike to be cho­sen as the sub­ject of its drama. Un­hap­pily, the un­happy ones have be­gun to face forms of un­hap­pi­ness that seem a lit­tle too alike.

If it’s not mur­der, pri­son and/or en­tan­gle­ment with a drug car­tel that’s trou­bling the 21st-cen­tury Karenins and Vron­skys, it’s likely to be an older Anna’s sex­ual and emo­tional re­pres­sion – a topic “not of­ten talked about”, ac­cord­ing to Toni Col­lette, the star of Net­flix’s new­est drama Wan­der­lust.

Co-pro­duced with the BBC, this six-part drama looks like a rich Tol­stoyan labour. Or, at least, it does briefly – just af­ter we learn that it’s not re­ally, as ad­ver­tised, packed with saucy scenes, and just be­fore we learn it’s not much chop.

By the start of the show’s sec­ond episode, the racy ex­tra­mar­i­tal sex of the pre­miere has slowed, and the dis­ap­pointed viewer must con­cede that this will not be the empty porn hinted at in pub­lic­ity. It will be, per­haps, the ex­plo­ration of “a mid­dle-aged woman’s sense of self-es­teem, of sex­u­al­ity”, as Col­lette de­scribed it to Bri­tain’s Ra­dio Times. It will be this, but with less of the ground­break­ing spice she promised in the same in­ter­view.

Col­lette’s claim in the piece to be “the first woman to have an or­gasm on the BBC” was quickly re­futed by sev­eral cli­max-spot­ters, par­tic­u­larly those un­able to for­get 2002’s late-Vic­to­rian les­bian romp Tip­ping the Vel­vet – as I re­call, a show that fea­tured fewer cos­tume changes than it did pe­tites mort.

Her state­ment that the in­ner life and de­sire of the midlife woman “is not of­ten talked about” may also be re­futed by cer­tain view­ers. Per­haps this ne­glect feels true to an ac­tor seek­ing those roles, but it does not feel true to all Net­flix sub­scribers. Well, not to me. My ap­petite for per­i­menopausal sto­ry­telling has been met and con­tin­ues to be fed these days well past the point of sati­ety.

Some women of my age range and above com­plain of their wan­ing vis­i­bil­ity. They say they live un­seen and urge for bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion on screen. Well, they’re be­gin­ning to get it on Net­flix, and I am be­gin­ning to re­gret not mak­ing a stronger case for fe­male in­vis­i­bil­ity be­fore its midlife pos­si­bil­ity be­gan to dis­ap­pear.

I was truly look­ing for­ward to di­min­ished vis­i­bil­ity; to life as an ob­ject that no longer sig­ni­fied mean­ing for the many. To be un­der­stood and traded in the vis­ual econ­omy as sex­ual was not some­thing I ever en­joyed. It is, ap­par­ently, some­thing that other women miss.

Thanks to shows such as Wan­der­lust, Grace and Frankie, Gypsy and the en­tire “strong woman lead” Net­flix cat­e­gory, some women will have the gift of vis­i­bil­ity re­stored, and oth­ers may be spared their an­tic­i­pated free­dom.

I do un­der­stand the real psy­cho­log­i­cal value and relief ex­pe­ri­enced by see­ing one’s iden­tity cat­e­gory fi­nally rep­re­sented, or at least bet­ter rep­re­sented, on TV. This golden TV age has given us At­lanta, Mas­ter of None and Please Like Me, and other mo­ments in which “di­ver­sity” is not only the mar­ket­ing pre­scrip­tion of pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies but also the ba­sis from which gen­uinely new sto­ries emerge. But it has also given women the du­bi­ous gift of an ex­tended sex­ual shelf life. This is some­thing I, per­son­ally, might have done with­out.

Un­doc­u­mented de­sire is fine by me. A masspro­duced state­ment of it, per the Fifty Shades fran­chise, is less de­sir­able to me. Some niche porno­graphic prowoman screen in­no­va­tion by a Maria Beatty type is one thing. Naomi Watts or Toni Col­lette speak­ing to press about the ur­gent need for the yawn­ing fem­i­nine li­bido to be lit, cel­e­brated and ex­plored is an­other.

This is not to be “up­tight” or to shun the idea of even dis­cussing what women want. It is to sug­gest that this dis­cus­sion – this ques­tion of the “dark con­ti­nent” of fe­male sex­u­al­ity – is not fun­da­men­tally changed by the mere fact of tele­vi­sion ad­dress­ing the post­menopausal body. It cre­ates a sit­u­a­tion where women are looked at, and look at them­selves, as a bun­dle of mys­tery not bet­ter, only longer.

Wan­der­lust does have the ap­pear­ance of ask­ing new ques­tions and ad­dress­ing old mys­ter­ies. It is shot, as Six Feet Un­der was, like a Gre­gory Crewd­son pho­to­graph, but also a lit­tle like the In­sta­gram of­fer­ings of a prow­ell­ness mum. It has an ex­pen­sive sound­track, peo­pled by Strong Woman Artists, and Brid­get Jones-in­spired dia­logue de­liv­ered at a Woody Allen of In­te­ri­ors-era pace. With the im­pos­si­bly good Col­lette as its star, and the pep of young play­wright Nick Payne as its writer, it feels deep. Or, deep once it’s stopped with all the hand jobs of the first episode.

I don’t be­lieve that Wan­der­lust is deep. I am not con­vinced that the “self-dis­cov­ery” claimed for midlife and older women has much depth, ei­ther. It is only a broad­en­ing of shal­low un­der­stand­ing.

Col­lette plays Joy Richards, a ther­a­pist, as did Naomi Watts in her un­for­tu­nate turn as Jean, the wan­der­ing vagina of Gypsy. The dra­matic ruse seems ob­vi­ous to me at once: Dora and ev­ery other hys­ter­i­cal pa­tient of Freud have turned the ta­bles – or the

couches – on the mas­ters! They are now the an­a­lysts, no longer mere analysand! But, even so, woman does not know her­self. She re­mains, even to her­self, the “dark con­ti­nent” de­scribed by Freud.

In the early mo­ments of episode one, Joy hands her crutches to her hus­band and re­moves some sort of med­i­cal hand-strap – she’s had a cy­cling ac­ci­dent, the most mid­dle-aged of in­juries – be­fore Mr Richards (played by Steven Mack­in­tosh, The Other Bo­leyn Girl, Lock, Stock and Two Smok­ing Bar­rels) at­tempts to mount the mis­sus. It’s not work­ing well for ei­ther of them and we soon learn that the very shrink who spe­cialises in mar­riage coun­selling is her­self un­able to de­clare her de­sire. That is, un­til she cops a wrist job from a bloke she met while ad­dress­ing her in­jury – she’s in­jured, so deeply darkly in­jured. Af­ter­wards, Joy in­sists the ex­tra­mar­i­tal sex be on for young and old.

Mr Richards starts up with sexy Claire from work (played by Zawe Ash­ton, Noc­tur­nal An­i­mals) and Joy pur­sues the chap she met at hy­drother­apy class. When she ex­plains to him that hers is a newly open mar­riage and that his sole func­tion will be to pro­vide the BBC with its first fe­male or­gasm, she is re­jected, which, given her aw­ful Colin Firth as Mr Darcy dia­logue, is only fair.

Col­lette may be proud to rep­re­sent the hitherto hid­den sex­u­al­ity of women my age, but I won­der if she is so proud to ut­ter the words of a play­wright who is male and was just 26 when he first gave voice to this com­plex, in­jured older woman. I can’t imag­ine how any woman, most es­pe­cially a pro­fes­sional stu­dent of the hu­man con­di­tion, gets to her mid 40s with­out learn­ing the skill of a lit­tle de­cep­tion.

This older woman has sur­vived the trauma of life, the trauma of child­birth and the trauma of los­ing her mother. Some­how, she has sur­vived all of this with­out learn­ing any guile. Some­how, she can sug­gest to her hus­band that sex out­side the mar­riage is the surest route to rein­vig­o­rat­ing that mar­riage with­out both­er­ing to re­visit one of the text­books we must sup­pose she read while ac­quir­ing her qual­i­fi­ca­tion as a re­la­tion­ship coun­sel­lor.

Nat­u­rally, one of the pair falls a lit­tle too deeply in love with their bit-on-the-side, and, of course, it’s not the woman, who must sur­vive the se­ries only as a Sur­vivor, and never, as far as I can tell, a per­son who has ex­plored her own “dark con­ti­nent” suf­fi­cient to give it a mo­ment of fem­i­nine plea­sure.

Wan­der­lust is not as overtly bad as the widely panned Gypsy, but it’s just as much of an ap­peal to the vi­sion of woman as in­jured, un­know­able and per­pet­u­ally mis­un­der­stood – while still be­ing bonk­able.

Col­lette is, of course, al­ways good. She is good enough to bring di­men­sion to a flat horny midlife ther­a­pist. But no one is good enough to save a se­ries as un­likely to of­fend as it is un­likely to leave a new or a true im­pres­sion on view­ers. There is not a lot here be­yond the tired idea that women can still be sexy and crazy at any age.

And sadly, this is what the Net­flix iden­tity-by­commit­tee drama may con­tinue to bring us – the ap­pear­ance of dif­fer­ence, but the un­der­ly­ing story of same­ness. With a bud­get cur­rently big enough to con­ceal


dim old ideas in bright new pro­duc­tion val­ues, Net­flix can get away with mak­ing tit­il­la­tion seem pro­found, as in the dread­ful midlife polyamory show You Me Her, or they can get away with bring­ing us nei­ther tit­il­la­tion nor pro­fun­dity, as with Wan­der­lust.

Where this stream­ing ser­vice may have once sought to chal­lenge all pre­vi­ous fem­i­nine for­mu­lae, it now seeks only to ex­tend the at­tributes of the most priv­i­leged or palat­able women to all. These women are of­ten un­happy, of course, but no longer un­happy in their

• own way.

Toni Col­lette and Steven Mack­in­tosh as Joy and Alan in Wan­der­lust (above), and Col­lette(fac­ing page).

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