Showtime’s The Affair
Last night, Showtime aired yet another entry into the non-linear storytelling trend that has gotten more and more popular in recent years. Much like the highly claimed HBO series True Detective and ABC’s new How to Get Away With Murder, The Affair plays with audience expectations and questions both memory and truthfulness.
On the surface, The Affair, which stars Dominic West and Ruth Wilson, seems like familiar ground: fairly well off white people having an affair. West plays Noah a husband and father of four who has a pretty cushy life thanks to his wife Helen’s (Maura Tierney) wealthy father, a famous author whose books have been turned into big films. Noah is a public school teacher and also a writer who recently released his first novel.
As the show begins, the family of six is leaving their New York brownstone (paid for by the father-in-law) and going to spend the summer in the Hamptons in the father-in-law’s fancy house. Tough life, right?
Sure, Noah’s kids are a little bratty, and they often interrupt him from having sex with his wife, but this lifestyle looks pretty good on the surface. His father-in-law is a bit of an ass, but he holds his own. This all seems to be part of the point: that he’s not terribly miserable. Unlike many other leading men of cable, Noah appears to be an OK guy. Or is he?
This fairly uneventful opening is a great setup for what comes next. At about seven minutes into the first episode, we begin to get voiceover from Noah, who is being questioned by a detective. He’s being asked about his life before it all happened, but we aren’t told what “it” is. This narration comes and goes over the first half of the episode and provides another layer to what is happening on the screen.
As the story continues, Noah meets Alison (Wilson), who is a waitress at a local diner near where they will be spending the summer. From the narration and title of show, it’s clear that Noah and Alison are being set up to be the “affair” of the show, though they do not have sex in the first episode. Their first meeting is in front of his family, and the second is alone and much more flirty.
But then the show doesn’t something much more intriguing. At the halfway point, the show flips back and tells the same story from Alison’s perspective. A detective is also interviewing her, and we learn that Alison is married to Cole (played by former teen heartthrob Joshua Jackson) and they’ve lost a young child recently. A child dying or nearly dying is a theme in the first episode — Noah’s daughter nearly chokes to death in the diner when he first meets Alison.
Without giving away all the surprises of the first episode, what is notable here is that the two versions of the story have very distinctive differences from what is said and done to what the characters are wearing. For example, in Noah’s version he saves his daughter from choking, but in Alison’s version, she saves the child.
This flip makes us question everything that has come before. Is Noah really the good family guy? Is Alison just a heartbroken mother? In Noah’s version, she’s less sad and flirtier. In her version, he is flirtier. And so on.
The first episode leaves a lot more questions than answers: Who is telling the truth? What happens that results in a detective being involved? How long does this all go on (from various comments it seems like it’s been a few years since the summer in question)? Will we get other perspectives or just stay with Noah’s and Alison’s?
It’s hard to tell where a show like this will go, but it makes you want to keep watching (at least for a little bit). The story itself isn’t that fascinating yet, but the method in which they are telling it is, which will keep me coming back to the TV in the weeks ahead.
Watch an edited version of the first episode below: