The Affair is dangerous television.
Now, watching attractive people sigh, cry and make poor decisions doesn’t sound like the most gripping thing you’ll ever see, let alone something “dangerous” to watch, and yet there we were within the first 15 minutes. Gripped. And once we started thinking about it – because this is a show that pretty much demands that you think about what you just saw – we realized how much danger there is in analyzing it.
We’d like to say that the title of the show is misleading, because stories about extramarital affairs tend to be loaded from top to bottom with cliches, and at this point, we doubt there’s much anyone can do to avoid them. But it’s really not that misleading a title, because it’s clear right from the start that this is exactly what the show is going to be about. It’s not likely to expand past the boundaries of the four main characters introduced in this episode, nor is it likely to ever stop placing the act of adultery squarely at the center of the story. Does it avoid all the cliches? No, not really, but it doesn’t seem to be trying to. Dominic West plays Noah, a fortysomething New York City public school teacher and first-time novelist, who has a lifestyle paid for by his wealthy in-laws, a gaggle of utterly monstrous children, and a good wife and partner who can’t lavish attention on him as much as he’d wish her to. Ruth Wilson plays Alison, a working class waitress in a marriage that looks all but dead on the surface because both partners are in deep grief. In other words, two bored and unhappy married people hook up. That’s not exactly a new spin.
But what really makes this show so engrossing- and believe us, it really is – is the deployment of the Rashomon-like storytelling technique where two different characters tell two different versions of the same story and you don’t quite know whose version is closer to the truth or which person to believe. This is where it becomes a little dangerous, because in trying to make sense of the stories and come to some sort of truth, you are going to wind up revealing some things about yourself and what parts of the story you responded to as well as what parts of the story repulse you. In other words, we, the fortysomething male reviewers, almost instantly considered his version more believable than hers. It bothered us greatly after the fact how quickly we assumed that she was a manipulative maneater who liked to flash her panties a lot and he was just a befuddled husband and father who got swept up in her charms. By the time Alison got to the end of her version, we were properly ashamed and realized just how ridiculous his version of the story is.
Which isn’t to say her version didn’t have some questionable parts. As much as we’d like to let the story wash over us and let us be passive viewers, that’s clearly not the intent. You have to be engaged with this story in order for it to work for you. It’s virtually impossible not to make the attempt to parse out which version is the “real” one or if, which seems more likely, the truth is somewhere in the middle of the two stories. And it’s telling what parts don’t match up. Which one of them was the smoker who offered a cigarette to the mostly non-smoker? There’s no middle ground of truth there. One of them is either misremembering or lying. If she was so reticent and reluctant to engage him on that walk back to her house, then how did he know about the importance of Peter Pan to her life? Did he just fill in those details from some later point on the timeline when she did tell him? Because if she did tell him such a deeply personal thing, then it makes her reluctance and discomfort seem a little unlikely. In fact, it makes it seem as unlikely as his version of the tale. And the two competing versions of the choking scene in the diner are so far apart that you have to assume that someone’s lying or someone’s in very deep denial about the kind of person they are. That’s what makes this tale so engrossing. You find yourself digging down into the story, parsing out every word and action because you want to know what the truth is. And the script rewards that need by providing revelations in the smallest ways. “Ah, so THAT’S why she has a Captain Hook band-aid on when she meets him!”
What’s also interesting is the way certain aspects of the stories line up, when you would assume that they wouldn’t. Because that was a rape at the end, right? In both versions, Joshua Jackson forced her down over the hood of a car against her will. He really wasn’t any less violent in either version. The only differences between the two stories was the expression on Noah’s face (concern or lust?) and the fact that, in her version, she had an orgasm.
See what we mean? DANGEROUS STUFF. We’re not even going to try to analyze that scene.
In addition, as if the competing-versions storytelling technique wasn’t enough of a hook, the show also employs the flashforward to give us just enough information about the future to render the past even more intriguing than it already is. Why are they giving statements to the police about their affair? Who is the father of Alison’s kid in the future? Why don’t their stories match up? What is truth? How reliable is memory?
And that’s the real hook. It’s a show that’s entirely about an adulterous affair and the two marriages involved, but what it’s also about, on a much deeper level, is truth and memory and how the two are quite often at odds with each other; how we tend to tell our own stories in ways that flatter us and make other people look bad by comparison; and how much that sort of denial is a universal human trait. People are flawed, their memories are unreliable and it’s impossible for them to be one hundred percent accurate in assessing themselves and their choices. It’s heady stuff, and it proves that even the oldest stories in the book can be told in fresh ways that force you to ask questions about yourself and about other people.
On a less rambling, philosophical level, the writing is, as we’ve indicated, water-tight, and the actors all give excellent performances that manage to be both languorous and confident at the same time; bored or tired people whose lives seem very lived-in, established, and most important of all, real. There’s both a sense of doom that hangs over everything, as well as a sexiness that can’t be denied. All four of the main actors (Maura Tierney plays Noah’s wife) are what we like to call “real-world hot.” No one is so good-looking that it becomes a distraction to telling a realistic story, but everyone’s good-looking enough to be the kind of person you notice in the supermarket and momentarily picture naked.
Oh come on, you know you do it.
Based on this first episode, we recommend it. It’s engrossing and it’s definitely a case of the story being more than the sum of its parts. Also, it’ll make you horny.
[Photo Credit: Photo by Steven Lippman for Showtime]
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