In its desperation to raid the archives for films it can rework into small screen success, Paramount TV recently announced it is cooking up (or should that be boiling?) a Fatal Attraction ‘event series’ with Mad Men writers Maria and Andre Jacquemetton.
Imagine the infuriation, then, when the studio’s creative bigwigs realised that, with Doctor Foster (Wednesdays, BBC1, 9pm), the BBC has already beaten them to it. With its edgy thrills and domestic noir tone, which has been oh-so popular since the release of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Doctor Foster is a Fatal Attraction TV reboot in all but name.
Like Adrian Lynne’s seminal psychosexual thriller, which saw Glenn Close’s jilted one-night stand becoming frighteningly obsessed with Michael Douglas (well, the adulterous married man he played, at least), BBC1’s nail-biting drama spins the tale of a highly successful woman whose seemingly perfect life is exposed as a deception in the aftermath of an affair.
The delicious twist here is that, rather than that of the jilted lover, the story is told from the point of view of the wronged wife, played with convincing menace by Suranne Jones. It’s a clever tweak on the formula; assuring viewers are always fully understanding of the wife’s actions, even as they gradually become more disturbing.
Jones is Gemma Foster, a high-flying GP living an enviable lifestyle. She’s successful, stylish and happily married to sweet, ambitious, charmingly handsome Simon (an equally charming Bertie Carvel). Together they live in one of those gleaming middle class homes that only seem to exist in the pristine land of television, along with their adorable son, Tom (Tom Taylor). Her biggest problem, you’d think, is keeping up with all the appointments on her jam-packed social calendar.
Naturally, it’s all too perfect to be true.
The drama’s early goings on see Jones channel the baser aspects of Glenn Close’s bunny-boiling icon by appearing to fall completely off her rocker. It starts with the discovery of a pink lip balm in Simon’s pocket and a long blonde hair on his scarf, tiny discrepancies that nevertheless plant the seeds of doubt about her husband’s fidelity. From there Gemma’s paranoia escalates rapidly to the point where she’s secretly scrolling through Simon’s phone in search of clues and trading sleeping pills in return for a patient’s help in tracking his every move.
Tantalizingly, we’re kept guessing throughout the first episode as to whether Gemma’s creeping suspicions are justified or just the sign of a woman who is slowly losing her mind.
Such a plot could easily swerve too far in melodrama – indeed it sometimes does with writer Mike Bartlett crowbarring William Congreve quotes into the dialogue – but instead the series heads in a tensely intriguing direction with the gut-wrenching revelation that Simon really is having it away with a local waitress half his age, spurring Gemma to stop playing the victim and start planning how she’s going to gain the upper hand.
It might sound unconvincing at first, but Gemma swiftly transforms into a cold, calculating femme fatale, carefully scheming to suit her own ends by continuing to play the dutiful wife, and all the while she’s accumulating evidence of Simon’s adulterous misdeeds. Oh, and she also seduces Simon’s smarmy best mate Neil (Adam James) and then blackmails him into handing over her husband’s financial records, just to really stick the boot in.
Not that it’s all revenge plots or marital misery; Doctor Foster also takes the time to examine the realities of uncovering your husband is a cheat. The de facto mindset may be to lob off the offending partner’s unmentionables and kick him to the curb while his belongings burn on the front lawn, but as the series makes clear, that’s not always the easiest option.
For all her planning, Gemma still can’t bring herself to pull the trigger on her marriage, partly because she’s aware of the untold destruction it could bring to her son’s life, but also because, in spite all of his shithousery, she is still hopelessly in love with Simon. And even if she does ultimately decide to chuck him out, there’s no guarantee she’ll be the one to come out on top. As her lawyer pointedly highlights: “The wife may get the house and all the money, but that doesn’t mean she’s won.”
There are, of course, some minor foibles – Bartlett is prone to the odd narrative contrivance and there’s always the vague feeling that events will suddenly spiral out of all logical control – but right now it’s fabulously absorbing and entirely gripping. The performances are all uniformly excellent, with Jones convincing as both a measured professional and an erratic spouse while Carvel ably hides a duplicitous liar beneath the veneer of the perfect husband, and the simmering tension ensures there’s never a dull moment as the stakes are slowly raised.
Will Simon come clean? Will Kate reveal the truth? Will Gemma’s frequent medical malpractice finally catch up with her? With so many questions still unanswered, there’s no telling what direction the drama will head next. The only certainty is that I will be making another appointment with Doctor Foster. Will you?
Click here to watch Doctor Foster on BBC iPlayer