Infidelity is mundane. It’s an easy path to instant drama. Yet what Showtime’s new series The Affair is doing with a sexy hook — pretty people cheating! — is something to marvel over. Based on the assured pilot and its steady plotting, which ends with you, the audience, thinking, let me watch all of it right now, it’s the best new drama of the season, handily, and could be your new obsession.
We start by meeting Noah Solloway (The Wire‘s Dominic West, American accent slipping into an across-the-pond burr, as ever). He’s a married man, a public school teacher, the author of a novel, and the father of four children: two cute and little (a boy and a girl), and two sullen and teenaged (one boy and one girl, the latter of whom is a babe in Lolita glasses, happily played by Julia Goldani Telles, formerly of Bunheads). By all accounts, his life is full and satisfactory — a Brooklyn brownstone, and a sexy wife (Maura Tierney) who he’s still hot for (even if their pleasurable attempts at lovemaking invariably end in coitus interruptus with a child yelling “Mooooom!” outside their door.)
However, there’s a restlessness to Noah. He tells us this in voiceover, talking to someone unseen, and we see it as he takes a morning swim, flirting with the girl sharing his lane. We see it in his little comments about “also hating grandpa,” and how his son should be nice to Noah’s father-in-law since he stands to get money from him. We see it as he drives down to the Hamptons, flirting with the waitress, Alison (Ruth Wilson, probably best known for Luther) whose little uniform is fetchingly short and her hair is loose and leonine. Alison is a good waitress, and can handle the chaos that is a four-kid family, even when the youngest little girl starts choking, only to be saved by Noah.
Noah’s restlessness takes hold when he ends up at the Solloway family’s Hamptons getaway: his father-in-law’s palatial compound, right on the water. Noah is a good enough literary writer that he has a contract for book two. His father-in-law, Bruce, on the other hand, is a name (as far as we can tell), a name like Stephen King or Nicholas Sparks: frequently adapted, much beloved.
Noah’s story should end there, but when night descends, he takes a walk out on the beach, restless, once again. He runs into Alison on the beach, sitting separate from a bonfire, spaghetti strap slipping off her shouler. She asks him to walk her home, and shows him her gorgeous seaside house on stilts, complete with an outdoor shower.
And here’s where things get weird: Noah is obsessed with outdoor showers, and he runs to the one at Alison’s place like a puppy. She asks if he wants to try it out, but he runs away, only to sneak back over to her driveway when he hears the sounds of scuffling. He sees her engaged in some rough sex on the hood of a car with her husband, Cole (yes, Dawson’s Creek alumni Joshua Jackson, third-wheeling it in a beautiful location once again). We can see the rage in Alison’s eyes: at first the sex is a violation, but then she seems to get into it, enjoying the show that’s going on in front of Noah’s curious eyes. It’s a performance.
And it is a performance, because as we cut back to Noah, we find him giving an interrogation in a police office. The story we’ve seen has been his story, and he’s been narrating it to the officer as an explanation of how the affair, as it was, started.
We then switch to Alison’s perspective. Soon she’s giving her own version of the events, seemingly to the very same cop, and we see the way her day played out in the lead-up to her encounter with Noah.
Alison’s day was different. We see that she’s working class, a townie. Her light-infused beach house is the sort of dune shack that fishermen built in the 1930s. She starts the day with married sex with her husband, Cole, and the sex is somewhat rote. They’re mired in some mutual sadness — their young son died last year. Alison’s clearly depressed, and the mythical outdoor shower is a place for her to sit in and reflect, trying to clean herself of something.
With Alison’s perspective, we see the self-serving turbo-slut narrative of Noah come into sharp relief. The day proceeds with the two character’s paths crossing in myriad fashion, and yet there was different clothes, different hairdos, and different attitudes in each story. Alison is far less of a temptress in her own words; Noah is far less of a hero. She’s just trying to get through her own day.
It’s the Rashomon-like dueling perspectives that give The Affair is power and pull, for now. The location is great — a fantasy/unrealistic Hamptons where it may be the dead of summer but it feels like the offseason — and so far, West and Wilson, who can be alternately sexy or plain, depending on the light, are beguiling narrators and storytellers. Judging from simply the pilot, it’s hard not to find Alison more sympathetic at the outset; however, it will be interesting to see where The Affair‘s creators, Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi (Treem is an esteemed New York City playwright, and they both worked on HBO’s In Treatment), take the story from its moody, fascinating beginnings.