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Why do some dramas require the female protagonists to be total idiots?

Molly Windsor as Rose, left, and Katherine Kelly as Leah: we know from the start that one of them will end up in jail.

Diana Wichtel reviews SoHo 2’s Cheat and Lightbox’s BBC thriller Trust Me.

David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, once said, “Your hero can do a lot of bad things, he can make all kinds of mistakes, can be lazy and look like a fool, as long as he’s the smartest guy in the room.” The trouble with so many characters who make poor life choices these days – especially female protagonists, sadly – is that the entire premise of the dramas in which they find themselves requires them to be complete idiots. These series demand that we not just suspend our disbelief, but slowly throttle the life out of it over a number of increasingly wildly improbable episodes.

SoHo 2’s Cheat stars Katherine Kelly, Coronation Street’s Becky McDonald as was. Becky was never the sharpest knife in the Roy’s Rolls cafe drawer. This time, Kelly plays Leah, an academic at a fictional Oxbridge university – the scene-stealing location is Cambridge. She has a PhD in sociology. Surely she should know better. She has it made – her father’s a retired professor, her husband a colleague – until a truculent student, Rose (Molly Windsor), hands in an assignment that is far too brilliant. Leah could have gone through university procedures that must surely kick in when a student is suspected of cheating, but then there would have been no annoyingly ludicrous plot. Instead, Leah changes Rose’s mark to a fail. Then she sneaks into Rose’s room to snoop. She hasn’t, apparently, heard of CCTV surveillance.

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The show could be quite clever. Rose is, in a way, Leah’s doppelgänger. She’s privileged. Her father – a big donor – has connections to the university. As we see when she snaps open her laptop as if she’s loading a weapon, Rose has been stalking Leah. Why? Rose is a former student of Leah’s father. He can’t recall her – “By the end, they all blur into one,” he says, looking shifty. Hmm.

It soon becomes clear that almost everyone is a cheat. Rose sets out to seduce Leah’s husband, Adam. He outdoes Leah when it comes to taking a sabbatical from his senses and sends his wife’s student inappropriate selfies. We know from the start that one of these two women will end up in prison for murder but, really, it’s hard to care. Warning: when characters are this obsessed with one another, something bad is going to happen to a cat.

Also inclined to take us for fools is Lightbox’s BBC thriller Trust Me.

Jodie Whittaker, now such a great Doctor Who, is doomed here to play nurse and separated mum Cath, fired for whistleblowing at her hospital. Her ex-husband is useless.

What to do? She decides to assume the identity of her doctor friend Ally, who has gone off to the ends of the Earth: New Zealand. Cath takes a job in an Edinburgh emergency room because clearly no one in Scotland has heard of Google. She was whistle-blowing about poor care and negligence at her old job. Ironically, she’s now bumbling through complex procedures with help from YouTube and a medical users’ manual. It couldn’t be less credible unless she tried brain surgery with a sonic screwdriver. It’s hard to sympathise. There are reasons “Fake it till you make it” is not part of the Hippocratic Oath.

Still, Whittaker is always supremely watchable, and a certain tension builds as her colleagues start to look at her oddly. How can this possibly play out, you wonder, as you try to resist yelling, “Wake your ideas up!” at the TV. Apparently, there will be a second series, minus Whittaker, who will be zipping around an absurd universe in the Tardis. Which is appropriate given that the writers appear to have taken their creative inspiration from the wisdom of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. “Do what I do,” he advised. “Hold tight and pretend it’s a plan.”

CHEAT, Sky SoHo 2, Wednesday, 8.30pm; TRUST ME, Lightbox.

This article was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.