This review contains spoilers.
Leah Dale (Katherine Kelly) is finally looking at a permanent position lecturing at St Helen’s College as well as trying for a baby with partner Adam (Tom Goodman-Hill). Everything seems somewhat tenuous however. When she has suspicions that one of her students, Rose (Molly Windsor), has cheated on an essay that feels a little too good compared to her previous work, Leah sets in motion a chain of tragic events that set the two women on a collision course. Rose is adamant that she didn’t cheat, but seems to welcome an excuse to toy with Leah’s life in any way that she can.
As the first episode of Cheat started winding its way through the narrative of one older woman versus a younger one who may or may not have some serious mental health issues, it was hard not to immediately think of it as Killing Eve, albeit it on a much smaller scale. ‘Bothering Leah’, if you will. Cheat is on the very serious end of the spectrum and doesn’t quite have the same spark. It’s a very fine line between a slow build of tension and a languid, alienating pace and it’s not quite clear which side of it Cheat is on.
What might be the show’s saving grace is ITV’s decision to air the four episodes on consecutive nights this week because if this first episode is anything to go by, the unveiling of Adam’s murder and the true culprit is going to be rather slow. The fractured structure and flashforwards to Leah’s fate manage to be both intriguing and infuriating in that they throw out the steady pace of the episode. Had it just been book-ended with their prison conversation, it might’ve allowed the tension to build even more to that final reveal rather than fragmenting the story with what felt like a random cutaway to a police investigation we weren’t yet sure existed.
If the pace and structure continues in such a way, spreading the episodes over a month, rather than four nights, could have harmed its chances to keep its audience interested. As it is, the first episodes ends on a rather brilliant cliffhanger. It’s not quite a shock, because it was clear Adam was not long for this world when Rose met him for the first time, but it does add a jolt of intrigue back into an episode that struggled to consistently keep its dramatic tension.
Fortunately, the cast is strong enough to hold the attention even when the narrative is struggling. The episode’s best scenes are the meetings between Leah and Rose, the pair circling each other with a weight of subtext between them. Katherine Kelly provides a sympathetic protagonist, but one who clearly has a few concerns of her own that she is choosing not to deal with, such as the issue of having children with her husband. She also has a nice, uneasy chemistry with Molly Windsor, ensuring the scenes they have together are the most compelling, crackling with an intensity that could do with filtering through to the rest of the episode.
The framing uses Windsor’s piercing blue eyes to excellent effect, whether it’s turning them doe-eyed to manipulate Ben (Burn Gorman, sporting an earring which seems intent on unnerving the audience through its presence alone) or staring, unblinking, at Leah in their various meetings throughout the episode. Rose is a character who might yet turn out to be a caricature of a begrudged young person, but in the first episode, she feels like a distinctly human villain. Her revenge against Leah doesn’t seem, so far, to be part of some master plan. She’s taking opportunities, but all are high-risk and not particularly well-thought out. There’s the constant nagging feeling that she’ll slip up at some point. She was, after all, caught cheating.
There is enough happening in Cheat to keep an audience’s attention, particularly the mystery around how Adam came to his demise and the obvious question of whodunnit, but it feels like it needs something extra to spark it fully into life. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait too long to find out.
Cheat continues tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday at 9pm on ITV.