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.
Here we are at year’s end! In the pop culture world, that mostly means endless “Best Of” lists reflecting on all the good stuff we watched or listened to. When it comes to TV, however, is a “Best Of” list really possible in 2013? More importantly, is it useful? For one thing, despite a slew of essays proclaiming that our most recent “Golden Age of Television” died this year with the end of Breaking Bad, 2013 may go on record as the best year for television in the history of the medium; you could reasonably compile a year-end “Best Of” list from new series alone! The overwhelming number of great shows creates another problem for compiling any kind of list: with such a variety of programming, it’s impossible to compare many of the year’s best series. Can you really evaluate what Bob’s Burgers is doing against what, say, Hannibal is doing (okay, aside from the fact that both shows’ titular characters enjoy cooking animal flesh)? Ranking seems—to me, at least—to do a real disservice to all of the wonderful stuff on offer.
Rather than rank, I thought it might be a good idea to take this moment to sing the praises of some of the best shows of 2013 that many viewers may have overlooked. Everyone knows Breaking Bad went out with a bang, or that Orange is the New Black made Netflix a true competitor in the quality original scripted programming game, but as the year winds to a close, here are a handful of other fantastic series worth checking out over your holiday break:
If I were going to make an actual “Best TV of 2013” list, the Sundance Channel’s Rectify would be vying for the top slot against the final season of Breaking Bad and another show on this list, Black Mirror. Beautiful, poetic, and deeply felt, Rectify tells the story of Daniel Holden, convicted of raping and murdering his high school sweetheart, as he returns to his small Georgia hometown when, after nineteen years, his original death row sentence is vacated by new DNA evidence. The show willfully ignores the plot and pacing conventions of traditional TV drama; instead, it offers a slowly unfolding character study of a man graced with new life but not sure how to live it, in a town torn apart by a young girl’s death and thirsty for vengeance. It’s heavy stuff, to be sure, but if you’re up for the challenge, the reward is pretty excellent: moments of storytelling as powerful and affecting as anything you’re likely to ever see.
BEST EPISODES: “Drip, Drip,” “Jacob’s Ladder”
In many regards, BBC2’s The Fall is a standard police procedural about a clever detective tracking a serial killer, complete with a couple of too-convenient plot contrivances along the way. However, excellent lead performances from Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan make this series a must-see. As the smart, supremely competent, and unapologetically feminist Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, Anderson is captivating; perhaps what I appreciate most about The Fall is its exploration of the many double standards imposed on a woman occupying a powerful position in a male-dominated line of work. Equally fascinating is just how normal Dornan’s Paul Spector appears—a stupidly handsome, young, married father of two who also happens to be a killer of women; in the wrong hands, that duality could be as goofy and ham-fisted as it often was on Dexter, but Dornan brings a certain blankness to the role that renders Spector far more inscrutable and unsettling.
BEST EPISODES: “Darkness Visible,” “The Vast Abyss”
Here’s another beauty from the Sundance Channel (who I’m pretty certain, after their commitment to incredible scripted series in 2013, can do no wrong). Although The Returned technically aired abroad in 2012, this French series came to the States this fall and quietly became the Best Show About Zombies on American TV (sorry, Walking Dead). I say that, although The Returned (Les Revenants in its native France) is only a “zombie show” insofar as people come back from the dead; here, however, they’re just as physically whole and mentally aware as they were before they died. There’s also some of Twin Peaks’ DNA running through the series: rural mythology, quiet horror, and enough mystery and suspense to satisfy anyone who might dismiss European fare as “too artsy” or whatever. Like Rectify, The Returned is interested in what it means to reclaim a place in a world you left behind long ago (in this case, Alpine France rather than rural Georgia), a world you no longer recognize, populated by both strangers who fear you and loved ones who have learned to live without you.
BEST EPISODES: “Camille,” “The Horde”
What more could I say about Black Mirror that I didn’t cover earlier this week in my longer piece on the show? Charlie Brooker’s brilliant sci-fi/speculative anthology series should absolutely be required viewing—not just for avid fans of television, but for all human beings in the digital age. It’s a bit cynical and pessimistic about the role technology plays and will continue to play in our culture, but it’s never wrong in its observations and, at the very least, is certain make you reconsider your own relationship with the virtual worlds you inhabit.
BEST EPISODES: “The National Anthem,” “Be Right Back”
Okay, Rev. didn’t air in 2013—the latest season wrapped in 2011, in fact—but I will never, ever, ever stop evangelizing on this series’ behalf. The show centers on Reverend Adam Smallbone, the middle-aged married vicar of an inner-city East London parish. American viewers may recognize series star and co-creator Tom Hollander as the villainous Cutler Beckett from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Rev. is ostensibly a comedy, one that manages to both generate warm laughs and mercilessly skewer all manner of religious hypocrisy, but the show is really at its best in its sadder, quieter moments; no show takes man’s relationship with the Divine and the thorny questions that relationship invites more seriously than this one. You can check out both seasons of Rev. on Hulu.
BEST EPISODES: “Jesus is Awesome,” “Episode 5” (Season 2)
That’s more like it.
I spent much of last week’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine review bemoaning the show’s focus on Peralta at the expense of other characters’ development. This week’s “M.E. Time,” however, is (almost) exactly the kind of follow-up I was hoping for, an episode that highlighted the series’ outstanding ensemble cast and allowed Andy Samburg to hang back for a change. Ironically, Peralta himself has trouble hanging back this week, working a DOA as Boyle’s second in command but itching to take the reins the whole time. Boyle, not Peralta, is really the main player in this story, as he and Diaz solve the murder while Peralta’s off having weird dead-guy sex with a medical examiner. Furthermore, the B-story was a nice showcase for Andre Braugher, Melissa Fumero, and Terry Crews—not to mention Joel McKinnon Miller’s inept Detective Scully—wherein Santiago recruits Jeffords to sketch a purse-snatching suspect while also trying to discern the many mysteries and grimaces of Captain Holt. The whole cast (minus the inexplicably absent Chelsea Peretti) is well served, for once, as the episode offers a welcome glimpse of what this show looks like as an ensemble comedy rather than just a Samburg vehicle.
I wouldn’t doubt that The Michael J. Fox Show feels tremendous performance anxiety. Expectations run high whenever a big-name star like Fox makes a comeback, of course, but add to that how desperately NBC needs a reliable performer on Thursday nights (or any night, for that matter), and you’ve got more riding on your shoulders than most sitcoms ever have. It’s clear that NBC would like MJF to be the network’s answer to ABC’s Modern Family, and that’s a lot to live up to. I can’t speak to how MJF will perform for the network; Thursday’s episode, “Art,” took a sizable ratings dip, but it’s not impossible that the series could pick up a bigger audience as the season goes on. But as the show seeks out that audience, it seems to be having some trouble figuring out the kind of show it wants to be, and if it doesn’t get a handle on that, it’s going to dip in quality as well.
Well, that was weird.
New Girl took a sharp left of its usual goofy lighthearted fare with this week’s “Double Date.” It’s by no means the first time the series has taken a break from the laughs to feature an emotional dramatic beat—past moments that come to mind include Schmidt and Cece’s breakup at the end of Season 1 and the death of Nick’s father last year—but has New Girl ever gone as dark as it did Tuesday night?
Every good show needs a clunker early in its run. This is especially true for sitcoms. Its rare that any comedy comes out of the gate doing everything exactly right (I would argue that only Arrested Development has ever come close to doing that). Series like The Office, Parks and Recreation, or The New Girl, which began their first seasons laden with possibility but had a dud or two at the start. Putting out an episode with big flaws—or even a few of them—early on can give a series a better sense of what is and isn’t working so that it can throw off dead weight and write to its strengths.
To my thinking, the biggest thing Brooklyn Nine-Nine could learn from “The Slump”’s failings is that it desperately needs to transition into an ensemble comedy, because it’s never a good sign when your show’s star is also its least interesting presence. There’s no denying the fact that Andy Samburg’s fratboy persona is popular with a broad swathe of the population or that Fox needs a comedy hit, given the low ratings for its other Wednesday night programs, but over these first three episodes, anything nuanced or interesting about the character of Jake Peralta has given way to the Samburg schtick; if that continues, it means that whether or not you enjoy Brooklyn Nine-Nine is going to depend on how you feel about Samburg.
Sorry to disappoint, Braverfans, but I’ve decided that I won’t be reviewing Parenthood on a week-to-week basis this season. It was a tough call to make, but reviewing three Thursday-night series in a timely manner is nearly impossible for me at the moment, given work obligations. Also, because Parenthood tends to develop its stories so slowly, I’ve realized that it would make more sense to review it via the occasional check-in rather than doing so on a weekly basis.
That said, I’d like to dedicate at least one weekly review to a drama, and given my schedule, my interest, and its shorter episode run, I think American Horror Story: Coven is going to be the one. Expect to see that review up on Thursday, October 10, the day after its premiere, and for me to check in on Parenthood somewhere around episode 4 or 5.
Meanwhile, expect a new Brooklyn Nine-Nine review tonight, followed by New Girl tomorrow, and some Michael J. Fox and Parks and Recreation later in the week.