The plot of this trouble-in-suburbia thriller might be flimsy – but who cares when there’s so much sexual tension between our flirtatious foursome?
It is sexy without being cringemaking, which is vanishingly rare … The Couple Next Door. Photograph: Channel 4
There are two extraordinary features to note about Channel 4’s new six-part drama series The Couple Next Door, which examines the combustible effects of a hot, swinging couple on a pair of conservative young things who move in next door. The first is that it succeeds in being sexy rather than cringemaking. This is vanishingly rare and comes courtesy of a clever, layered script that ties each of the narrative strands together perfectly and takes enough time to build every relationship within the foursome to allow what unfolds to feel plausible. Writer David Allison understands that even people destined to climb into bed with each other are capable of thinking and talking about other things while lust brews in the background, and cracking a few jokes along the way. I don’t know if this was present in the Dutch series New Neighbours, on which this is based, and Allison had the sense to keep it intact or if it’s all his own work but it is fantastically well done. There should be a special annual award for any creation that manages to deliver convincing spousal banter like Allison does here.
The second extraordinary point is the casting of Hugh Dennis as a stalker. Alan (Dennis) is obsessed with Becka, the more free-spirited of the hot swingers (played by Jessica de Gouw, coupling her innate credibility as a hot swinger with a nuanced portrait of a woman making the best of a life she never expected and which will soon take a turn for the worse). And it turns out that Dennis, after decades of providing gentle humour in roles playing on his unthreatening affability in the likes of Outnumbered and Not Going Out, is the perfect creep. Alan starts off as what you might call a bit of a saddo, but as his circumstances change and appetites grow, we watch with bated breath as his behaviour escalates and his mood darkens. It would be a brilliant performance even if its purveyor were not so unexpected, but the casting adds an extra touch of uncanniness to the whole.
The plot of The Couple Next Door is relatively slight. What if, it asks, you suddenly found yourself presented with a world of possibilities you never thought you would entertain? Strictly raised Christian schoolteacher Evie (Eleanor Tomlinson, modulating perfectly from innocence to wonder and, after a series of catalytic events, to rapacity) and husband Pete (Alfred Enoch, great as a man scrambling desperately after his wife as she runs towards possibilities whose ramifications she cannot appreciate) are the polar opposites of their new neighbours Becka and Danny (Sam Heughan, concentrating too hard on disguising his Scottish accent to match the fine-tuned performances of the rest). The latter are non-monogamous – there are a few clunky scenes in which they laboriously explain to us and their new friends how it all works – and both Pete and Evie’s eyes widen at the news, but not for quite the same reasons.
There are a couple of subplots, the main one hinging on Danny’s involvement with a corrupt local councillor who may be the key to a huge story Pete, a journalist, is working on for the local paper. But The Couple Next Door is all about the couples. What happens when feelings start getting in the way of fun? Unequal feelings, unreciprocated feelings, feelings stronger than love, love stronger than any other feeling? What is the difference between morality and successfully repressed natural desires? And what happens when they can’t be repressed any more?
As the sexual and other tensions – Alan, I’m looking at you and your growing malevolence and your poor wife (Kate Robbins) about to find your perverted little eyrie upstairs – grow, it also finds time for a sideways glance at modern masculinity (skinny Pete rolls his eyes as Evie teases him about Danny’s musclebound physique, but his apparent potency plays on their different vulnerabilities), the harm done by the prurience and judgment of others and whether – especially in the age of the internet – you can ever escape it.
But, you know, fun and sexy too. Enjoy.