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.
“Be a yardstick of quality,” Steve Jobs apparently said or wrote or communicated via brainwaves at some point in time (words of wisdom I found on BrainyQuote.com after searching the word “leadership” when I wasn’t sure how else to start this review). “Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” Despite my pathetic means of acquiring the quote, it truly does speak to the theme of tonight’s A-story, which finds Peralta adapting to Holt’s own expectations of excellence. See, with Captain Ray Holt running things in the 99—and determined not to screw anything up in his new hard-won position of leadership—there’s no place for tazing cantaloupes or tossing your ringing phone into the toilet just because you don’t feel like waking up on a workday. In short, there’s no place for the kind of employee that Peralta, up to this point, has been. There is simply the job and doing it well.
Showtime’s newest original drama Masters of Sex officially premieres at 10 PM on September 29 (a week from tomorrow!), but in case you didn’t know already, it’s available to view here on the network’s YouTube channel.
Masters of Sex stars Michael Sheen (The Queen, Frost v. Nixon) and Lizzy Caplan (Party Down, Bachelorette) as pioneers of sex research William Masters and Virginia Johnson. I’ll have much more to say about the series’ first episode after it airs, but for the time being I’ll just say that I really like this and am looking forward to seeing more. I expect the show is going to draw a lot of comparisons to Mad Men, given the series’ mid-century setting and examination of the era’s attitudes about gender and sexuality, but already the show has established Masters and Johnson as distinct, unique characters who are every bit as fascinating and ripe for study as human sexuality itself. If I have a criticism, it’s that this pilot is a bit on the slow side, although this tends to be the case with many premium-cable dramas, whose pilots primarily serve to introduce characters and bring the story elements together rather than to get the plot moving. Nevertheless, there’s much to love about this first hour, and at this point, I’m confident that Masters of Sex has the potential to be TV’s next big character drama.
On television, and especially on sitcoms, second seasons are all about growth. Any rookie series lucky enough to garner a Season 2 tends to use that opportunity to expand the show’s world, shade in its characters, complicate its premise, and/or open up an assortment of possibilities in ways that may have seemed unlikely or even downright impossible in Season 1. New Girl was no exception. The series’ debut season took a while to find its footing, but once the show nixed the D.O.A. character of Coach, softened Schmidt’s douchebaggery, and cranked Jess’s twee-o-meter down from 11 to a cool 8.5, New Girl managed to flesh out its unique and relatable characters and to develop an easy, authentic comic rhythm unlike anything else on television. Still, the plots of Season 1 trod familiar, if not unwelcome, sitcom territory, focusing primarily on the romantic pursuits of its young, attractive cast in much the same way that other young-singles-hanging-out shows like Friends or How I Met Your Mother have done. The second season of New Girl , then, worked to expand the show’s repertoire tremendously, and it did so by turning to that primary objective of second seasons—growth—as a theme.
Much of this growth came in expected forms. The show’s world opened up, for example, to introduce viewers to characters’ families, which in turn served to reveal new facets of their personalities or to more fully explain what we knew about them already. Storylines, too, ventured into new territory, often to downright surreal places (remember the time that old Asian man cured Nick’s emotional ailments with water massage?). But where plot was concerned, Season 2 of New Girl was squarely focused on materially, psychologically and emotionally growing up these characters, and last season’s finale, to my thinking, did an excellent job of delineating how far those characters still had to go.
I’d be lying, then, if I said I wasn’t at least a little disappointed by “All In,” the Season 3 premiere episode, which spent a half-hour spinning its wheels. At the beginning of any new TV season, it’s important to check in with characters, reminding returning viewers where things left off and catching up any new viewers, but “All In” didn’t have much else going on. The majority of the episode was spent unpacking the conflicts set up in last season’s finale. Nick and Jess are “all in,” committed to making their new relationship work but also terrified of screwing everything up. Schmidt, meanwhile, can’t decide who he wants to be with—Cece, who called off her wedding for him, or Elizabeth, who he was with first. But we knew all that stuff back in May, and this episode did little—if anything—to advance either plot. Nick and Jess run off to Mexico to escape their responsibilities and regular selves but, after some wacky misadventures in resort hotel-crashing, end up right back at the door of their loft, afraid but ready to see what comes next; Schmidt lies to both Elizabeth and Cece, telling each woman he chooses her, because it’s too difficult a decision. So again, what do we know at the end of this half hour that we didn’t know four months ago?
Brooklyn Nine-Nine has already been touted by many TV critics as the best comedy of the season, and while I haven’t seen enough new pilots to make such a bold claim, I’m inclined to think those critics might be on to something. It doesn’t hurt that showrunners Michael Schur and Dan Goor have spent years helming another excellent workplace comedy, Parks and Recreation. But where Parks took a full season to find its footing and settle into a steady groove, Brooklyn Nine-Nine arrived tonight with a crystal clear sense of its characters and its humor.
Folks, it’s almost 2012, and my chronic laziness is compounded by year-end fatigue. Still, I thought it’d be nice to do something year-in-review-y, since that’s the sort of thing you do when you like thinking out loud about pop culture for all the world (or the 3 people who bother reading this) to see.
The problem is this: WTF do I write about? I’ve been poor and busy, so I haven’t seen many of this year’s (allegedly) best films or read a ton of new books. I’m probably best qualified to speak to the the music and television of 2011, but even then I have very particular musical tastes (I am at best indifferent to the Wye Oak album that seems to be topping indie critics’ charts this year), and I admittedly have missed out on a lot of the excellent television that’s been on offer (really, the only thing that could have even more firmly cemented 2011 as the best ever year of television would have been a new season of Mad Men, right?).
Anyway, what I’m getting at is this: You’ll probably find me doing some very creative year-in-review lists or Q&As around these parts in the coming weeks. Today’s business, however, is pretty straightforward: my top 10 music tracks of 2011, complete with (frequently meaningless) 10-word reviews and some very sexy audio-visuals. Tis the season!
10. Future Islands, “Before the Bridge” from On the Water
10-word review: Weirdly like Tom Waits over 80s new wave, but better!
9. Florence + The Machine, “Shake It Out” from Ceremonials
10-word review: Makes my heart swell. Oh Florence, you mystical wailer, you!
8. Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues” from Helplessness Blues
10-word review: Beautifully harmonized apt summation of quarter-life crisis over guitar strummin’.
7. Wild Beasts, “Reach a Bit Further” from Smother
10-word review: When apology from lover sounds this hot, accept it, damnit.
6. James Blake, “Limit to Your Love” from James Blake
10-word review: It’s even better than Feist’s version, and that’s saying something.
5. St. Vincent, “Surgeon” from Strange Mercy
10-word review: Gorgeous, lonely and tortured, like Marilyn Monroe, who inspired it.
4. Bon Iver, “Holocene” from Bon Iver
10-word review: I said I wanted to die to “Stacks.” Now this.
3. M83, “Midnight City” from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
10-word review: What Blade Runner would sound like if it was happier.
2. Tune-Yards, “Bizness” from WHOKILL
10-word review: If Nina Simone made postmodern indie funk, it’d be this.
1. Girls, “Vomit” from Father, Son, Holy Ghost
10-word review: Noirish rock ballad, improved by gospel choir. 2011’s best, methinks.