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Sarah Treem‘s version — and vision — of infidelity is rendered superbly in The Affair, her new Showtime series that combines excellent writing, nuanced acting and an intriguing structural device to hook viewers.
The Affair comes at a time when the broadcast networks haven’t delivered much meat, a good deal of buzz is being generated over on Amazon (for its excellent Transparent series), and cable is wrapping up some very good newcomers and trotting out some solid vets. Meaning, cable could use something new and electric right now, and The Affair fits the bill.
Treem (House of Cards, In Treatment), with the help of Hagai Levi (In Treatment), has managed to bewitch the pilot for this series, adding a Rashomon-ic element to the characters’ recollection of events and teasing an as-yet-unknown crime. There’s a lot of disparate threads, but The Affair deftly sets about twisting them all together.
Dominic West (The Wire, The Hour), plays Noah Solloway, a New York City public school teacher who has just completed his first book. Life is pretty good. He seems happy. His wife, Helen (Maura Tierney, ER), is mother to their four kids. Her father (John Doman, also The Wire) is a famous author who has parlayed his books into movies and riches, which causes problems with Helen and annoys the hell out of Noah.
For the summer, Noah and Helen heading to Montauk to stay at her father’s house.
There they will meet Alison (Ruth Wilson, Luther, etc.), a married waitress struggling to overcome the death of her 4-year-old son and the toll it has taken on her marriage to Cole (Joshua Jackson, Fringe), a member of a huge Montauk family who has owned a profitable ranch there for generations. Where Cole seeks solace in the support of his family, his many attempts to help Alison have gone nowhere, and he’s grown bitter about it as the two drift apart.
Although critics only got to see the first episode, it was exceptionally well done and “a talker.” Given the flashback sequences that Treem and Levi employ, you not only get memories of chance encounters but also important events — like when Noah’s youngest daughter gets a marble stuck in her mouth at Alison’s diner and almost dies.
In the hands of Treem and Levi, which character does what in those flashbacks is important, because it colors perception. Sometimes — but not always — Noah and Alison remember things in ways that show each being more valiant or understanding. One might paint themselves more romantic or present, instead of a jerk and distant. But it’s the minute details — who really helped Noah’s daughter in that time of crisis and who stood back, useless — that are telling.
Sometimes memories in The Affair are complete opposites. Sometimes one includes details that could prove important, while the other leaves out those details entirely. Which is the accurate recounting?
The show’s first hour is worth rewatching to catch the numerous well-shot instances of such nuance.
Furthermore, every recollection may be a clue — possibly to a motive. Part of the intricate structure of The Affair has Noah talking, off-camera, to a man asking him questions. You first think he’s talking to a therapist. But the tone is off. Later, in her version, Alison also talks, off-camera, then on it, with the same man, and we realize he’s a detective, not a therapist. And there’s been a time jump that has changed the characters’ looks (and attitudes).
So, what’s going on? Well, consider at this point the police investigation to be a hook that may really pay off later, but at present isn’t that important. Treem telling the story of an affair — what the revelation does to the other spouses, what it does to those participating, or the kids who feel the fallout — there’s enough emotional fireworks to make these episodes dense with complicated, mature, adult storytelling.
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That the people we are only beginning to meet, only beginning to find out about in their affair, could in the present day be two vastly different people is a wonderful writing trick. As viewers side with Noah or Alison (or their spouses), as they no doubt will, they are learning about characters from a specific time, dealing with what might amount to a brief, forgotten summer, and now — with the passing of years — might not resemble in any way early Noah or early Alison. Hell, one or both could be implicated in a crime and our perceptions of them may change again.
This glimpse into identity and meaning is done with excellent acting and top-notch, emotionally fearless writing. There are times in The Affair when a character — let’s say Noah — acts a certain way and it seems off, like a person wouldn’t have that reaction. And you chalk it up, at that moment, to the writing not quite nailing the emotion — only to find out later that it’s how Noah viewed himself and was thus skewed, altered by narcissistic elements. That’s a nice touch to a series that will keep viewers guessing what’s real, what’s memory, and what, ultimately, is true.
That latter bit about truth may, in the end, be the twist that makes the show.
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