Nothing sets the heart racing in quite the same way. The anticipation, the excitement, the apprehension – the risk of being hurt again. The fluttering prospect that this one, this time, could be something special. Yes, we’re watching a new romantic comedy-drama, Cheaters (BBC One).
Josh (Joshua McGuire) and Fola (Susan Wokoma) meet, pretty cutely, in an airport, when their flight back from Finland is delayed. He annoys her – accidentally, by spilling her coffee, then self-righteously, by interfering in an argument she is having with an airline employee. Later on, frustrated and stranded for the night, the pair meet again by chance in a hotel bar. They end up in bed, and not in a Steve Martin/John Candy way. Josh has already said he has a longterm girlfriend, who has recently cheated on him; in the morning, Fola shocks him by saying she is married.
The big “romcom coincidence” is revealed at the end of episode one, although discussing it isn’t too much of a spoiler because each instalment is only 10 minutes long – of which more later. As romcom coincidences go, it’s a whopper: Josh and Fola return home independently to discover that they are, since Fola and her husband’s very recent house purchase, neighbours. Of course they live in Peckham, the most newly desirable area of London at the time of filming, and, of course, in lovely houses: steps up to the door! They live bang opposite each other, too, a convenience utilised by episode three’s rather unlikely closing shot, when Cheaters takes on a Woman in the Window (Whom I Have Secretly Slept With) vibe.
Anyway, they had planned to forget what happened and, instead, work on their relationships. As soon as Fola arrives home, to a civil but physically indifferent welcome from hubby, we see that her relationship needs as much repair as Josh’s. But Josh and Fola forgetting about each other isn’t going to be possible.
Cheaters must make a fine judgment on how likeble to make the other halves, since, presumably, we are signing up to endorse their erring on the wrong side of fidelity. It falters a bit here, with the blase, oversexed Esther (Callie Cooke) and the so-undersexed-he’s-actually-a-bit-sinister both initially too cartoonish; but it is strong on the guilt that engulfs Josh and Fola the instant they arrive home and see their wronged partners. You can almost taste the ash in their mouths.
Those small but key moments are all the work of McGuire and Wokoma, who are both excellent: McGuire is slightly stereotypical but funny as an overthinking nerd who struggles to keep any emotion hidden or under control; Wokoma is even better, with more to play with as a woman whose outward assertiveness masks her vulnerability.
Romcoms live or die by the little looks on actors’ faces, and Cheaters might make it thanks to Susan Wokoma. When Josh’s inept patter starts to have an impact on Fola – just when the annoyance of a cancelled flight and the deep unease of a sexless marriage are combining with alcohol – Wokoma’s side-glancing, sparking look is spot on. When Fola has one more go at suggesting sex with Zack – in the ideal moment after they have just successfully hosted a party, but the hour is not too late – and he still says no, Wokoma plays it to perfection, her face gently deflating, as Fola crumples inside. Later on, when Fola looks at Josh and realises she is going to get them both in a lot of trouble, Wokoma’s eyes widen, her lips part, and there is the hint of desperation at the knowledge of what is to come.
The short episode length doesn’t add anything, nor does it do any damage. And it’s hard to imagine the innovative linear scheduling – episode one shown before the BBC Ten O’Clock News, with a double bill of episodes two and three after it – having much effect. Is the target demographic really attention-deficient enough to balk at 30-minute instalments, or more likely to snack on iPlayer, 10 minutes at a time. By the end of episode three, although writer Oliver Lyttelton has hit his beats at the close of every 10-minute snapshot, we’re exactly where we would be at the end of a regular episode one.
So, where are we? We’ve laughed plenty and ridden out some awkward moments. We can see Cheaters’ flaws and perhaps it’s not a keeper, but we’re feeling the characters’ yearning and we’re starting to share it. Let’s give this a go.