Born in around 800, somewhere in Anglo-Saxon Hampshire, Bishop Swithun was an unlikely folk hero. Most famous for a legend where he mends a basket of broken eggs – somehow less dramatic than, say, slaying a dragon or driving the snakes out of Ireland – Swithun was, all the same, given his own sainthood and name day. And St Swithin’s Day, the 15th of July, is the day that anchors, like a gravitational force, the orbiting drama of One Day, a new Netflix romantic series, charting the search for affection and understanding between two unlikely lovers.
Dexter “Dex” Mayhew (Leo Woodall) is your classic man-about-town, posho lothario. Emma (Ambika Mod) is a chippy, slightly bookish Northerner. When they meet on their final day at Edinburgh University, they make something of an odd couple. “What’s your plan for life?” Emma asks him, as they undress, but all Dex can imagine is a globetrotting, gallivanting gad across the continents. “That’s your plan for the future?” she asks incredulously. “To go on holiday?” But the future, when it unfolds, is a bit more complicated – and we get a front-row seat. From graduation in 1988 through to the 2000s, we see Dex and Emma, one day (and year) at a time. Each year, on the 15th of July – when, according to legend, a drop of rain presages a long, wet summer – their relationship, half friendship half something more, is rekindled.
“There’s nothing sexier than talking,” Emma informs Dex during their one-night almost-stand, and that’s basically show creator Nicole Taylor’s perspective. Working from the bestselling novel by beloved British author David Nicholls, Taylor understands that the only thing more emotionally tantalising than unrequited love is a love that is clearly requited but unconsummated. It is the game that so much great TV plays – whether that’s Tim and Dawn in The Office or Lorelai and Luke in Gilmore Girls – of withholding the moment of actual physical entanglement until it feels hard to bear, like sustenance just out of reach to a dying man. The journeys of Dex and Emma are winding – Dex ends up in a relationship with beautiful, unfaithful Lydia (Eleanor Tomlinson), while Emma shacks up with aspiring comedian Ian (Jonny Weldon) – and only occasionally overlapping. It makes it all the more satisfying when the stars begin to align. “Do you think we’re rushing into this?” Emma jokes, as things start to come together.
For all that One Day is about the proximity, and distance, of love, the story is also an illustration of the tug of war between privilege and purpose. Dex has the former but not the latter; Emma the reverse. Essie Davis plays Dex’s mother Alison (in a rather Saltburn-y mode), who follows that trajectory to its ultimate extent, disarmed from her carefree life of luxury by terminal cancer. Dex drifts through his twenties, swapping backpacking for life as a semi-celebrity TV presenter, while Emma, with no-nonsense Yorkshire grit, slowly pursues her ambition of becoming a writer. “Purpose is so key to happiness, darling,” Alison tells her son. “You’ve had luck, so much luck.” But luck runs out – and One Day is underscored by a sense that fate will not smile on them forever.
Woodall – who was last seen in The White Lotus with his face buried in Tom Hollander’s buttocks – is a charming presence as Dex, combining a roguish smile with the sad eyes of a labrador begging at the table. Mod, best known for her breakout turn in the BBC’s This Is Going to Hurt, is an equally likeable presence, offsetting Emma’s brittleness with a punchy self-confidence. They have a degree of chemistry, though it doesn’t fizz like Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People, another saga of twentysomethings falling in and out of love. And while both are physically convincing in their early to mid-twenties, they age scarcely a day over the course of this multi-decade saga. “I’m getting fat,” Dex announces in 2003, staring into a mirror that shows only Woodall’s beach-ready 27-year-old body.
Compared to the 2011 film adaptation, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, Netflix’s 14-episode series feels designed to embrace the tricky structure of Nicholls’s novel. The show’s jukebox soundtrack moves from Frankie Knuckles to Sweet Female Attitude as, episode by episode, we move through the years along with Dex and Emma. And yet, despite the increased depth of coverage their relationship receives, the show never quite manages to land a true emotional sucker punch. Those watching for the novel’s famed tearjerker quality will find the show front-loaded with the petty agonies of early career life, and rather lighter on the sweeping romantic undercurrents of the star-crossed source material.
Despite a slightly repressed English quality to proceedings, Netflix is clearly banking on One Day appealing to a generation of viewers who have been vacuuming up the works of Colleen Hoover, a writer of extremely sentimental romance novels. This means that Dex and Emma’s relationship is taken seriously and given the time and space to emotionally luxuriate. And, at the end of the day, even if there’s no gut punch, there’s still a poignancy to the sun setting on young love.