In this underwhelming crop of 2014 freshman efforts, if you could point to one show that emerged as the “anointed one” by critics, it would have to be Showtime’s The Affair. The erstwhile movie cabler clearly feels the same way too, scheduling their show during the brutal Sunday night viewing window. Set over a summer on Long Island, the first season follows the genesis and consequences of an affair between two married people, teacher/author/scumbag hubby Noah (played in a blandly gruffish manner by Dominic West) and local waitress/grieving mother Alison (a reticent Ruth Wilson). Intrigued? If not, there’s more.
There’s the customary murder plot device too (the blood plot thickens).
And the first few episodes of the first season are being told to a circumspect black detective (Victor Williams) in a series of flashbacks (True Detective much?).
But that’s not even the real secret sauce of this whole (he &)shebang. In each episode thus far, the main action has been told from the two separate viewpoints of Noah and Alison. While this kind of framing device is nothing new to the world of TV or the movies, series creator Hagai Levi (who also created and adapted HBO’s In Treatment) takes it a step further by really pushing the differing perspectives. Did Noah save his daughter from choking on a marble given to her by Alison like he recalls or did Alison as she asserts? Did Alison confidently strut around in a little black dress that went barely past her hips while catering a party the way Noah thinks or was she feeling self-conscious amid the wealth and lecherous eyes the way she remembers it? The likelihood of a definitive answer is probably as good as your memory of the womb. It’s not a few details here and there that differ between the two; whole scenes change during every pass of memory.
The problem with the whole enterprise, though, is the lingering It’s-All-Been-Done-Before haze that envelopes the story. When a literary agent meets with Noah to discuss the second book he is supposed to be writing during his family’s stay in Montauk, Noah tells him the book will feature “A small town girl. City guy. They meet fall in love… He’s married and so is she.” The agent looks away and – with a bemused sigh – says he’s read that story before. And we’ve seen this show before too. All too recently. In 2012, NBC played with the unreliable/alternating narrator conceit in a much more interesting way with their show Awake. Critics were mouth-frothingly rapturous about the story structure and the narrative possibilities when it premiered. The show was cancelled after one season.
Last year, ABC went the affair-with-murder-afoot route in their own naughty lovers series, Betrayal. That show, like The Affair, also had two Brits* (the male lead was actually from Ireland) playing Americans. Critics were not as rapturous about this one. The show was cancelled after one season. Of course, premium networks can afford to be more patient with the properties than the execs at NBC and ABC, so Showtime might not be too troubled by the past.
Make no mistake, the show oozes the requisite veneer of class a premium network show is expected to display. In recent years, there has been a huge emphasis – particularly in these premium channel miseries – on setting the scene and the resulting cinematography by Steven Fierberg is no different. The sparse, bleak winters of FX’s Fargo and True Detective’s steamy expanse of Bayou country are joined by the sumptuous roadside establishments and tide-swept beaches of Long Island. Gorgeous shots of lighthouses and docks lend a sense of earthiness to the show. You can practically smell the fish in the air.
Though there are no A-list movie stars appearing in the credits here, a strong cast is assembled. Joshua Jackson and Maura Tierney play the respective spouses you’ll probably end up rooting for. West and Wilson do perform well enough with their lingering stares during the stop-and-start phase of their budding romance. The problem though, is the lack of raw heat between the two. There is always a spark that drives people into each other’s arms, and the two are not translating anything of the sort on screen.
West does, on the other hand, seem to have noticeable chemistry with Maura Tierney, who plays his loving (and as-of-yet clueless wife) Helen. The quick scenes between the two that are peppered throughout the episodes are often short, but great to watch. Helen also shows a sudden underside of anger when she spots an old mistress of her dad’s during a party that bodes well for some compelling fireworks when she eventually finds out about her own husband’s mistress. It’s an unfortunate problem for a show called “The Affair” when the lead actor has better chemistry with the person playing his wife than the one playing his lover. With direct competition like Sunday Night Football, Walking/Talking Dead and The Good Wife, the spark may not end up igniting for viewers either.