I heard about Showtime’s new drama, The Affair, like I hear about most new television shows–from buzz on the Internet. It seemed everywhere I looked there was more praise. I’ve recently gotten hooked on Masters of Sex and I loved Homeland when it first came out, so it seemed like I should at least give this new show a shot.
The premise is simple enough. Noah Solloway (played by The Wire‘s McNulty, Dominic West) is a writer living in a well-appointed Brooklyn brownstone with his wife and four children. His first novel has just been published, with middling reviews. The series opens on the morning of his family’s annual departure to Montauk, where they will spend the summer at his wife’s parents’ ginormous beachfront mansion. As the show goes on, we learn that his wife’s (Helen) father is a famous writer himself–who also happens to be a jerk.
The Solloways stop (a little inexplicably) at a local restaurant in town called The Lobster Roll before they get to their final destination, where they meet Alison, a beautiful young waitress with a haunted face and tousled hair. This, as all the previews and ads tell us, is to be Noah’s mistress in “the affair” from the title. While the family orders lunch, their youngest daughter chokes on a marble and Noah must save her, pounding frantically on her back while everyone else panics. Afterwards, he finds Alison coming out of the women’s room, crying and upset.
Later that night, after yet another attempt to have sex with his wife is foiled by one of their children, Noah wanders down to the beach, where he finds Alison, sitting by the shore in a skimpy sundress. She offers him a cigarette and asks him to walk her home, where she has something she wants to show him. He follows, feigning reluctance. Turns out, she wants to show him her outdoor shower, which he seems really excited about. This part is weird, because who doesn’t have an outdoor shower in a beach town? Anyway, it gets weirder, as Alison invites him to “try it out,” stepping brazenly out of her dress and stripping down to nothing. Flustered, Noah says he’s married, and has to leave. But before he gets too far, he hears a scuffle and goes back, only to witness an awkward scene between Alison and a man in her driveway.
Actually, this man is Alison’s husband, Cole, and he’s played by Joshua Jackson, nee Pacey Witter, of Dawson’s Creek fame.
So, the premise is sort of generic: “happily” married family man goes on vacation, is sexually frustrated and perhaps suffering something of a mid-life crisis, becomes infatuated with a beautiful local and proceeds to cheat on his wife with her. All kinds of hi-jinks ensue.
But here’s where The Affair goes from relatively mundane to fascinating: in the middle of the first episode, the point of view shifts from Noah to Alison. Similar to True Detective (another show I love), we learn that the two main characters (Noah and Alison) are narrating their accounts of events to a police detective. They speak obliquely about a crime, but we don’t know what it is quite yet. By the end of the episode, when they flash to present-day Alison, it becomes clear that a good amount of time has passed between when the two first met and when they’re recounting these events–Alison has aged, gotten a new haircut, and refers to needing to “pick up her kid.”
Meanwhile, in the flashback, we learn that there’s a reason for Alison’s haunted eyes–she and Cole have lost their young son in some kind of tragedy. She cries in the shower and reads Peter Pan to her son’s grave. She is sad. In Alison’s version of events, SHE is the one who saves Noah’s little girl’s life when she is choking. In her version, she is on the beach avoiding the bonfire where her husband is having fun with friends when Noah shows up, flirty and spouting nonsense about only smoking French cigarettes. (He’s a writer from Brooklyn, so this actually pretty much checks out). When he offers to walk her home, she is the one who is reluctant. When he freaks out about her outdoor shower, she confusedly asks if he wants to try it out. In her version, she leaves her clothing on. In her version, he clumsily kisses her. When he leaves, she gets in the shower, then confronts Cole in the driveway when he gets home. She collapses in his arms, exhausted by her sadness, and he comforts her. It’s an intense scene in both versions, but the implications are radically, radically different.
The interesting part about these two sides of the same story is how much the details matter. In Noah’s story, Alison is all legs and wind-blown hair and skin. Even the skirt on her waitress uniform is indecently short. In Alison’s memories, her hair is pulled up and she’s wearing slouchy t-shirts instead of skimpy sundresses. Her uniform covers her ass. In each recollection, the role of seductor and seductee is reversed. It’s always the one with the cigarettes you can’t trust.
I’m interested to see what happens–what was the crime? Why are Alison and Noah implicated in the crime? What does their relationship have to do with the larger events of that summer? But I’m most interested in the way the story is being told–the unreliable narrators are incredibly compelling, and it’s fun to wonder just who, if either of them, is telling the truth. Or if there’s really any one truth.
I’m looking forward to seeing what happens–the second episode was just as good as the first, with the same subtle differences and details in both parts of the story.
Have you seen it? Are there any other television shows that remind you of novels and stories in the way they’re told?