“It all began on a dark and stormy night,” Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson) says midway through the pilot for The Affair, embarking on her story of a Montauk summer. She’s just joking, she adds quickly, attempting to diffuse the tension with a nervous laugh, but Alison’s allusion to the collective yearning for familiar narrative patterns is at the very core of Showtime’s new drama. In truth, it’s from expectation, perspective, personality, and memory together that we construct the stories we tell, and The Affair examines this unfathomable alchemy to superb effect. Its sexy, impressionistic mystery emerges here fully formed, as though it had been waiting to be discovered all along.
It all begins one bright Manhattan morning, as teacher and first-time novelist Noah Solloway (Dominic West), his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), and their four children prepare to spend the summer at her parents’ Long Island mansion. With the exception of one brief, incongruous shock, the first act ambles along as a naturalistic family portrait. Noah, flattered by a woman’s attention at the health club pool, returns home to find Helen in bed, and the sex they have isn’t without a certain passion—at least, that is, until one of the kids calls out for Mom. “When is she going to college?” Noah asks. “12 years,” Helen replies.
It all begins, too, in a rambling beach house “at the end of the world,” as Alison awakes next to her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson), unable to reach out and touch him. The air here is heavier than in the Solloway family’s brownstone, more obviously suggesting a troubled marriage: Alison won’t quite look Cole in the eye as they have sex that morning, and he in turn urges her to “try to have a good day” before he heads out to the car. Even by comparison with Noah’s poorly reviewed (“derivative”) novel, Alison’s career appears moribund. She’s waited tables at the same diner since adolescence, unhappily enduring the creepy owner’s crude remarks.
Yet the unremarkable introductions to the details of life in each household belie The Affair’s intricate design. As Noah and Alison recount the day’s events some time later, the Rashomon effect of their distinct points of view shapes and reshapes our understanding of their initial encounter in provocative ways; a sense of the unknown, or perhaps the unknowable, so thoroughly permeates the episode that the fact of their impending affair becomes the only firm foothold. Indeed, the premiere’s unexpected reticence proves to be its foremost delight, transforming the raw materials of romantic drama into something far more cunning, and more treacherous: The Affair is itself an act of seduction.
Moving beyond the commonplace notion that no two people remember the same event in exactly the same way, series creators Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem investigate why with an appreciation for the manifold factors from which any recollection is formed. Noah and Alison’s first meeting occurs when the Solloways arrive at the diner for lunch, and their respective experiences of a choking scare involving his youngest daughter throw each character into sharp relief. Notably, Noah, whose father-in-law disparages his work and whose wife chuckles at his contorted face during sex, recalls coming to the rescue himself, as though reprising the role of hero in his own story; Alison, grieving the death of her four-year-old son, remembers stepping in to save Noah’s daughter before retreating to the bathroom to throw up, as though the panicky moment resonates with prior experience. Both versions of the sequence are enmeshed in personal histories with much longer arcs, not necessarily “true” in the strictest sense, but all the more affecting for being honest.
The Affair’s understanding of memory and narrative also subtly engages the elements of class status, and especially gender, that scaffold Noah and Alison’s distinct perspectives. In his mind, she smokes American Spirits and strips down for the shower, unembarrassed. In hers, he smokes Gauloises and offers to walk her home, unsolicited. There’s a defensive fantasy in the way each retrospectively imagines the other’s characteristics in that moment: She’s a shameless minx and he’s a leering prick, as though to enact absolution for what follows. Their radically different interpretations of the climactic occurrence traverse similarly delicate terrain in complex terms, interrogating how our societal identities help create the familiar narrative patterns through which we view the world. Who’s saving whom in this enigmatic flirtation, and from what? Thrillingly, the series resists an easy answer to this question, offering only scraps of biographical data and a disorienting blur of contradictions that might also be faulty memories, misrepresentations, delusions, half-truths, or lies. After all, these are the building blocks of any great story, and so far The Affair is exactly that.