Most infidelity I’ve encountered and heard about in my life does not begin with a long-thought-out scheme, not through connivance or calculation. Don’t get me wrong, of course there are those who are so profoundly bored
or disillusioned by their relationships they want an affair – any affair. We
must only hark back to the humbling data leak that outed users of Ashley
Madison, the affair-seekers website, to be reminded of this.
But in my experience cheating, in your 20s and 30s at least, tends to be an act of opportunity and drunkenness rather than one of planning. One partner is at a party or a trip without the other, and has had enough to drink that all thoughts of tomorrow disappear. The saving grace of situational and isolated encounters of this nature is that they can be repressed. I’m not saying this is ideal or morally aspirational, but we are an imperfect lot and infidelity happens. One could reasonably expect that a one-off fling in a faraway country can be bundled up in shame and pushed into the recesses of one’s mind, costing nothing more than years of low-level anxiety and psychic trauma.
This is the assumption for Josh (Josh McGuire) and Fola (Susan Wokoma) in new iPlayer romantic comedy series Cheaters. The two meet in Finland and
bristle against one another in the time-honoured rom-com tradition before getting pissed at the hotel bar. Fola is here for her work as a travel writer, while Josh explains he is on a solo heartbreak holiday, recovering from the news that his very long-term girlfriend Esther (Callie Cooke) cheated on him with a woman. This revelation introduces new intimacy between the stranded travellers and they end up having a very fun-looking shag in Fola’s room (one of the nicer things about this series is how joyous and actually sexy the sex is, doing that rare thing of capturing the frivolity of good sex without having to make light of it out of embarrassment).
That should have been it, particularly as Fola tells Josh that she is in fact married. They part on irritable terms, off to their respective homes to forget all about it. Trouble is, their homes are the same place. Fola and her husband, Zack (Jack Fox) have just bought a flat on the south-east London street where Josh and Esther live. Denial is no longer an option.
This is a truly special show, warm without being soppy and funny without undermining the seriousness beneath its central questions. McGuire
and Wokoma are magnetic, both deft in their totally divergent ways at
portraying people who know everything is not all right but are determined to pretend otherwise. It unveils at an elegant, unrushed pace all the issues both minor and severe that have brought them to this point.
Towards the end of the series, the script begins to paint in broader strokes again, to let us see some of the wider context that informs their insecurities and resulting behaviour. Fola has suffered from an ex-boyfriend committing an act of “revenge porn”, sending explicit video to her family and employers – she is clearly still struggling to feel comfortable in herself and in her sexuality in the aftermath of this event. Josh’s family come round for a roast and we see that he is full of wounded derision for his gallivanting ladies’ man father, and that perhaps this childhood perspective is keeping him wed to the idea of maintaining his long-term relationship with Esther despite their mutual and obvious unhappiness.
And, too, Josh and Fola’s partners, the ostensibly cuckolded Esther and Zack, are given full, real motivations and impulses, which mean that the stakes feel both higher and more confused than if they had been rendered simply a pair of bamboozled fools being tricked by the main characters. Esther’s infidelity with an older woman who works at the same school is shown to be the flailing act of a person who is wholly unsatisfied with herself and the path she has chosen. With Josh her entire adult life, she has never made any moves in the world, no adventure, no daring.
Zack, meanwhile, maintains an astonishingly alluring aesthetic form, big blond abs-crunching viking that he is, while living in denial about his
diminished libido. They are flawed people, but they are lovable and idiosyncratic and attractive, too, so that the affair between Fola and Josh
feels explicable but not immaterial. A large part of us certainly is rooting for
them to get together, but there are significant moments when it becomes clear the true damage they are exposing others to without their consent or knowledge.
If they are really in love, will this retroactively make all the lies and wrongdoing valid somehow? Is it even possible to fall in love just a few weeks in? I don’t know, and neither do they, but it’s impossible to resist wanting to go back and find out.