‘The Affair’ Pilot Review: Fall’s Best New Series
The Affair tackles themes of fidelity and infidelity — themes that have been dissected in stories throughout fiction in all its forms — with an interesting twist. Given its powerful repercussions and implications, it’s both surprising and not surprising that there hasn’t been a show devoted to the ripples it can cause. From the first ten minutes of The Affair pilot, we’re given a complex look at a complex issue.
The Affair focuses on the binaries involved — the cheating man Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and the cheating woman Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson). The series is told through flashbacks as Noah and Alison are being interviewed, separately, by a detective in relation to a crime that is relevant to their affair. It’s through the detective that the best quality of the series is established: its memory biases.
There’s the old saying that there are three sides to every story — yours, mine and the truth — and that’s what’s on display here. Noah and Alison remember their first encounters differently in little and small ways — who was wearing what, who said what when, etc. Most noticeably, they both believe the other was the more aggressive one, the one that pushed the affair forward.
A relationship between two people is as much projecting onto the other person as it is dealing with the reality of who they are, and The Affair embraces that fact, sprinkling in other ideas of memory. Put simply, we want to remember things the way we want to remember them; the opposite of Proust. In Noah’s memory, Allison was dressed sexier on the beach; in Allison’s memory, Noah was in better clothes and in better shape. He remembers being more hesitant and her more explicit; she remembers him being aggressive and her being calm. It’s a subtle way of pitching the blame and waxing fantastic.
Creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi could have copped out and given us easy outs. Noah and Alison could easily have been infuriating and selfish. And though they are admittedly selfish, it’s balanced by levels of honesty and empathy. Alison and her surfer husband Cole (Joshua Jackson) lost their toddler to an unnamed accident a year ago. They’re both struggling still — Alison more so. She resents Cole for his ability to go to work, for his ability to laugh at jokes, to look like he’s moving on. Noah, meanwhile, is a husband of four kids ranging from toddler to early teens. In his first scene, Noah rejects a young woman’s advances with little temptation. It’s established that despite Noah being an author and his family living in a Brownstone, the book was not a success, he’s having trouble writing a second one, and his father-in-law is paying for their home. He visibly loves his wife and children, though, like in any marriage, there is a certain level of secrecy. The financial stressors certainly are of no help, and Noah and Helen (Maura Tierney) keep missing each other. It’s not that they’re bored of each other sexually or intellectually, it’s just that they just can’t seem to be alone together for more than three minutes in a stretch.
The fact that there is an undeniable level of mundane reality permeating the lives of these characters makes it such a surprise that the pilot itself is in no way boring. We identify a bit with each character, we learn to like and dislike them in some ways, and the only fictional flourish comes from the catalytic mystery involving the unnamed crime. The Affair isn’t a show like Hung that worked in spite of itself; The Affair works because it works. There’s a maturity in the writing of the characters from an unending sense of ennui from Noah and dread from Alison. Together, both families are fairly typical, dealing with typical problems. There are little ironies and hypocrisies in their lives, just as in any of ours. Noah declines the advances of one woman, but not another; Alison accuses Cole, out of misplaced guilt, of having an affair right after she nearly did.
The writing is well above average. It is clear without being expository and has very stilted or false moments. The moments that feel false are usually in the writing of the kids, but nobody can write children well anyway (see: Homeland, 24 and Ray Donovan). Outside of that, the only scene that feels fiction-y and false is the tarot card scene, which was eye-rollingly accurate to the point where they just might have read the synopsis of the episode. At the same time, I’m not sure if the scene is indicative of the truth or Alison’s biased recollections; the same can be said of Noah’s overtly awful in-laws. If anything, Treem and Levi have really set themselves up with an incredible excuse — if they ever screw up badly they can blame it on the characters’ memories.
The acting is excellent across the cast — the standouts obviously being West and Wilson (though Wilson clearly steals the show) — but others are still given chances to shine, particularly John Doman and Joshua Jackson. Wilson’s Alison is shaken, rail thin, and looks like she could possibly dissolve into the atmosphere at any moment. She’s at an important moment in grief — when she could very well succumb to it and isn’t sure if she doesn’t want to. Alison wants to feel something outside of pain, and it’s clear at times she wishes to be someone else. Anybody else, and perhaps this affair makes her feel like that someone else or makes the things that happened to her feel like it happened to someone else. Infidelity is as much about escape as it is betrayal.
This show isn’t a clean one. Nobody is entirely likeable or unlikeable, but together, it is a very taxing experience on the viewer. The Affair probably isn’t made for marathoning, but with its one-week intervals giving us time to breathe, it is clearly the best new show of the fall.
The Affair airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime.