WARNING: This review contains mild spoilers for the series premiere. Read at your own discretion.
Early critical buzz had pretty well sold me on giving Showtime’s new drama The Affair a shot. It stars several actors from other shows I’ve liked or even loved in the past; The Wire‘s Dominic West and Luther‘s Ruth Wilson are at the center of things here. Its creative team of Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi previously worked together on another excellent pay cable drama, HBO’s In Treatment. So when Showtime released the series premiere on YouTube earlier this week, I was all too happy to take a look.
While The Affair is primed to become one of my favorite shows of the year, its greatness came on me entirely by surprise.
Because halfway through the show’s series premiere, I was ready to check out.
We start out meeting Noah Solloway, played by West – a mostly happily married Brooklynite, father of four, school teacher, author – as he and his family depart for his wealthy in-laws’ Montauk home for the summer. He soon meets Alison Lockhart (Wilson), a sexy waitress at a local diner who shares an intimate moment with Noah after his youngest daughter nearly chokes to death in the restaurant. The two meet again later by chance when Noah, unable to sleep, happens upon a beach bonfire where Alison is in attendance. He walks her to her house, the two share a tense flirtation over a cigarette and an outdoor shower, Alison comes on strong, Noah backs down and heads home. Noah hesitates, returns to Alison’s house, and finds her in a heated argument with another man that culminates in what could easily be mistaken for a rape over the hood of the man’s car. Alison catches Noah’s eye, grins lasciviously. You could have had this, she seems to imply.
Everything about Noah reads like a cliché at this point. He’s the kind of guy stories about affairs always seem to be about, a man who’s just barely wrangled in his restlessness for the comforts of domesticity. Sex with his wife (Maura Tierney) is twice interrupted by his children’s needs. His father-in-law, a wildly successful author, busts his balls about money, work, and writing. He insists that he’s happy, but his sighs, his grim expressions, his nighttime wanderings suggest otherwise. Despite his alleged contentment, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine him throwing everything out the window given the right circumstances and the wrong woman. And that “wrong woman,” Alison, seems like a well-worn character, too. She’s shockingly flirtatious, given that she’s served breakfast to Noah’s whole family, a sexually aggressive scapegoat who knows just when to play coy and when to drop trou.
By this point, my eyes were strained from all the rolling. What was interesting about any of this? The gender dynamics here are problematic enough, but add to that a plot that viewers seen a thousand times in a thousand schlocky films and soap operas. I expected that this was going to be one show whose charms I failed to see, and I couldn’t understand why critics I admired and respected had been so generous with their praise.
But that’s just the first act. When the second act begins, it does so with a new title card, one that reads ALISON.
And here’s where the show’s premise becomes clear: we’re going to see these events unfold from more than one perspective.
In Alison’s version of events, things look very different. Not just little things, either, like who says what to whom or how she wears her hair. When Noah’s daughter chokes, for instance, it’s Alison who saves her. Noah is the aggressor now, while Alison, distracted by depression in the wake of her young son’s death, barely responds to his advances. The man from the argument Noah oversees is Alison’s husband Cole (Joshua Jackson); the sex between them, while rough, was initiated by her. When her gaze meets Noah’s as she’s bent over the car, she’s not lascivious at all. She’s embarrassed. And she’s sad.
In short, the first half is not the true story at all. Neither is the second half. Neither is, and both are.
I think about the stories my husband and I would tell if asked about how we met, where they would start, what they would include, what each of us would have completely forgotten about in the intervening years. Neither of us would be able to faithfully recreate the day or even come close to it, and even if we could, why would it matter? Our own recollections of the experience are the only record we have, and they’re the only record we need. To understand who we are, how we fell in love, you would have to consider both of our stories, though neither would be entirely complete or “accurate.” Our memories are biased and selective, our perceptions shaped by a number of other factors and experiences. For all intents and purposes, there is no objective version of events, of any event.
Additionally, what I’ve neglected to mention up to this point is another important element in the show’s structure: the interviews that serve as a framing device for each episode. These appear to be police interrogations of some kind, taking place long after after the events of the episode. The premiere gives away very little regarding the nature or purpose of these interviews, but they add a new wrinkle: a gauge by which we, the audience, can measure the distance between the moments the characters remember and the stories they tell.
To me, these formal elements are what make The Affair so compelling and original. The lead performances are strong (especially Wilson’s, who Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff rightly describes as “a walking wound” in his review), the show looks beautiful, but it’s this approach to storytelling that’s really sold me on the series. Sure, the unreliable narrator is a well-worn narrative trope, but I don’t believe it’s ever been done on television before, at least not in so explicit or sustained a fashion. What could easily have been a sudsy potboiler at worst or, at best, more misery porn about the problems of rich white people ends up instead becoming a fascinating examination of how memory works and what its workings might say about each of us and the lives we’ve lived. Or, at least, the lives we imagine we’ve lived.
The Affair officially premieres on Showtime at 10 PM on Sunday, October 12. The first episode is available to view here on YouTube.