I like dramas that surprise me with hidden depths and intriguing methods of storytelling. Showtime's THE AFFAIR sounded like a prosaic idea on the surface, so I was pleased everything was elevated by a sharp narrative and good performances. Noah Solloway (Dominic West) is a first-time novelist and family man from New York, who takes his wife and four children to the coastal resort of Montauk, Long Island. There he meets a pretty waitress called Alison (Ruth Wilson), whose relationship with her husband Cole (Joshua Jackson) is on the rocks after the tragic death of their young child. The title gives away what happens next…
Initially drawn in by the presence of two actors I like—The Wire's West and Luther's Wilson—it was great to quickly feel at ease with a script that felt nimble and witty. It was also interesting to get a taste of the different lives each leading character's trapped in: Noah's resentful of his financial dependence on fellow author father-in-law Bruce (John Doman), slightly emasculated by wife Helen (Maura Tierney) during sex; Alison grieving the loss of a child, growing distant from her husband, stuck in a dead-end job she's been doing since adolescence. Their attraction to each other is more the excitement of a possible escape, or distraction, from the ruts they're stuck in.
However, what really surprised me about The Affair were the narrative structure and plot devices co-creator Sarah Treem used. Firstly, everything's a True Detective-style flashback to past events (about a year ago?), with Alison and Noah being separately interviewed by a detective. Why are they being interrogated? I'm guessing either Cole or Helen has gone missing or been found murdered, but all we know is their affair's a key factor.
Flavouring the flashback-structure, there are actually two opposing perspectives on events, as the affair's being remembered differently. (Cleverly, there are even changes in wardrobe). Who's telling the truth? It seems one of the flashbacks are lying to us, or distorting what happened. Perhaps both, blended together.
Noah recalled meeting Alison for the second time on a moonlit beach, where she tries to seduce him into taking an outdoor shower with her. It felt like Alison's character is set to become a bunny-boiling femme fatale, luring poor Noah into her sexual web. But then Alison's flashback to the same night portrays Noah as the slightly aggressive, sexually-suggestive one...
I don't know if The Affair can sustain this premiere's quality, but I'm hopeful. Creative duo Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi both worked on HBO's In Treatment, which often did a good job telling human, emotional stories across many episodes. And that show relied on two or three people talking in a room, whereas The Affair offers a larger sandbox to play in.
My big concern is a fear the novelty of how the story's told will wear off, by which time I won't be invested in the central affair, or what it leads to. Noah and Alison aren't the most likeable of characters, they're just intriguing presences right now. But I've only seen the first hour, so for now I'm excited by the potential The Affair has to tell a fascinating story composed from unreliable memories and/or dishonest testimonies.
written by Sarah Treem (story by Sarah Treem & Hagai Levi) • directed by Mark Mylod • 12 October 2014 • Showtime