The Couple Next Door wastes no time in telling us that its psychodrama is heading nowhere good.
The new six-part Channel 4 thriller opens with a dramatic flashforward of Gone Girl-esque menace to a woodland cabin in the Yorkshire Dales. Evie (Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson) emerges clearly unprepared for the elements around her, barefoot, in a negligée and on the run.
In hot pursuit is her other half Pete (Alfred Enoch) and her neighbours-with-benefits Danny (Outlander star Sam Heughan) and his wife Becka (Jessica De Gouw). Evie’s crying, Pete has a gun, Danny’s wearing an extremely tight jeans and jacket combo. It’s all very dramatic, if a tad soapy.
Then we jump back to when this central quartet first met, as a pregnant Evie and her hubby move onto the Leeds cul-de-sac they will shortly meet that titular couple on. The drama bats off the inevitable Desperate Housewives comparisons in the first few lines of dialogue: “I’m sold. Bit Desperate Housewives, maybe, but it’s nice,” says Pete.
Like that show, it plays on the curtain-twitching and behind-closed-doors intrigue of suburbia, albeit sidestepping the humdrum nosiness and mind-numbing boredom that setting has been captured with on screen before.
Danny, or Tarzan with a Leeds accent and a vast array of muscle tees, welcomes the newbies to the ‘burbs by taking their fridge into the house, which he picks up with the ease most people use to retrieve a milk carton from within the fridge.
His wife and yoga nut Becka instantly takes to the couple and when Evie and Pete lose their baby, they turn to their non-monogamous neighbours for support and a friendship between the core four soon blooms.
Danny is a traffic copper taking bribes on the side. Pete is a snarky journalist whose work speaking truth to power will inevitably collide with Danny’s dodgy dealings at some point. Evie is a kindergarten teacher desperate to have children of her own. Becka mostly brings the good vibes.
Oh, and Hugh Dennis is also here, down the road from that lot, in the role of a lifetime as a creepy peeping Tom. His main characteristic is a hyper-fixation on Becka, for which he has a telescope station and an ominous Becka-themed folder of JPEGs on his computer, which he has conspicuously named ‘untitled’.
Outlander’s Heughan and Poldark’s Tomlinson are both breaking their 18th century period drama moulds in this psychological couple-swap thriller. However, their chemistry on screen doesn’t quite simmer in the way you hope it would from something billed as a drama in which its characters are “chasing deepest desires” and reckoning with the fallout.
It’s just a lot of Heughan and Tomlinson staring at each other, often in a way that trends towards cringe as opposed to sexy. When the pair go for a joyride around the neighbourhood on Danny’s motorcycle, the thing feels more like an F1 hot lap than seduction by scooter.
The pair told the Radio Times they never did a chemistry test before being cast and questioned what they even really achieve, but maybe the answer would have been better chemistry?
Meanwhile, De Gouw exudes the sexuality required as Becka, so much so you’re occasionally left wondering why Danny gives a fig about Evie to begin with. Enoch is solid as the one who’s not really down with all of this swinging stuff, questioning whether he’s actually as authentic to his progressive persona as he assumed he was.
Both the couples sort of have better chemistry with their own partners in the drama – we get a fairly steamy no-nudity sex scene between Pete and Evie in the first episode, begging the question of whether there’s any point in the partner swap that comes later.
A surprising highlight is Dennis with his dark, dead-eyed stare, offering a more family-friendly incarnation of You’s “I’ll love you to death” Joe Goldberg.
The chief notable absence when comparing this to those other shows is the gaping chasm where some light relief might have gone. Desperate Housewives balanced adultery and arson with both unintentional and intentional gags aplenty, while You has had the biting commentary of Joe’s voiceover, particularly in its standout third season.
But what it does have bubbling underneath the psychodrama is something fairly interesting to say about the way society views non-monogamous relationships, and the unconscious rules we largely abide by in coupledom, which here sex and desire throw into question.
Outlander fans coming over to The Couple Next Door in the hopes of more hot and heavy Heughan won’t be disappointed, although this contains less of the romance and never quite reaches the sparky heights of Jamie and Claire.
Ultimately, Pete sort of said it best: bit Desperate Housewives – although perhaps not enough in the ways we would want – but it’s nice enough.
The Couple Next Door airs on Channel 4 from November 27.