ITV has a record of producing high-concept psychological thrillers that rely on ambiguous characters and unreliable narrators and stripping them across the whole week. In 2018 the channel gave us the slightly contentious Liar, a series with a sexual assault at its heart and a subsequent question: was the accusor telling the truth, or was the accused guily as implied? This time we have Cheat, another mono-syllabically-named four-part story that is full of tension, ambiguous characters and from the makers of Liar (Harry and Jack Williams’ Two Brothers production company).
We’re introduced to Leah Dale (Katherine Kelly), a comfortable, meticulous Oxbridge university professor. She’s in the type of marriage to fellow professor Adam (Tim Goodman-Hill) that seems fine on the outside, but beneath the day-to-day lie real problems – they’re trying for a baby, to the point where sex is targeted and strategised to maximise various biological windows; she’s back ‘on the pills’ again; she’s going for a job promotion and is due an appraisal; and she fantasises about a colleague with such intensity she has to relieve herself in a toilet cubicle.
In any other context, Leah Dale would be a very normal woman whose trials and tribulations would be recognised by millions across the country. However, this being a mainstream, primetime psychological thriller and whodunit, these characteristics and actions point to ambiguity, instability even.
Why? Because of Rose Vaughan (BAFTA winner, Molly Windsor).
Initially, Rose is presented as a capricious, lazy and late student. When she hands in an essay, Leah’s radar goes up – despite average grades and a general lack of interest in lectures, this essay is the business and so different from anything else she has ever produced. Leah thinks she has cheated. Rose maintains she hasn’t. Leah fails her.
From there on in Rose wages a war of subtle, clever and psychological intimidation against Leah. Why? No one knows for certain just yet, but at the moment everything points to the fact that she’s a psycho and it has been Leah’s misfortune to fail the wrong student, in the wrong place at the wrong time. (This may change over the course of the series.)
She semi-reports Leah to her superiors after having rehearsed crocodile tears in the mirror the night before, manages to glean Leah’s address from (what looks like) a library worker she’s been stringing along and proceeds to not only visit Leah’s home, but also tries to seduce her husband. Oh, and she may or may not have killed Leah’s cat, Betsy.
Thing escalate very quickly in Cheat, that much is very clear, but one question nagged at me throughout: if you know a terrifyingly tapped student is intimidating you as an act of revenge, why don’t you call the cops straight away? But no, this is a mainstream, primetime psychological thriller and whodunit, so of course Leah is going to bite and allow herself to take her on.
Call it arrogance, call it a game in a life that has become so stressful, call it whatever… Leah just cannot help becoming involved with Rose and engaging her.
And that’s the nature of this drama – a battle royale between two clever women. We don’t quite know their motivations yet, but this first episode of Cheat does a good job of setting things up, providing a few thrills and spills and laying out its ambiguous characters. Yes, it’s far-fetched and takes some going along with, but it adds jeopardy and that whodunit element thanks to flash-forwards (not flashbacks) of Adam laying on a mortuary slab, stab wounds perforating his pallid corpse. So we know something very bad is going to happen, we just don’t know when and who commits the bad thing.
There are lots of familiar elements here, and perhaps even a slightly predictable nature about the whole story (character paradigms and set-up really do remind you of Liar), but these sorts of series are about the ride.