By Oliver Morrison
“The Affair,” a new ten-episode series from Showtime, has managed to find a new crime subgenre in this age of over-saturation. Shows such as “Twin Peaks” and more recently “The Killing” found new territory by unearthing the warping consequences of a single murder for a whole season that murder-an-episode shows such as CSI breeze past. “The Affair” promises to deliver the same richness and depth but by focusing on the characters before they will soon be ruined rather than just the aftermath.
To maintain this suspense over a full ten episodes requires some plot jujitsu. So the creators have stolen from the Rashomon tradition of telling a story from multiple perspectives. Even as the story builds toward some unknown crime, clues are warped and distorted through the memories of the two leads.
Two British actors pull off the very difficult challenge of portraying two slightly different verisons of the same eponymous American infidels: Dominic West (from “The Wire”) is Noah Salloway and Ruth Wilson plays Alison Lockhart, his young dalliance.
In the first episode, Ruth seduces Noah back to her house; or, if we are to believe her instead, he invites himself back. The first half of each show is told from his perspective, the second-half from hers. So either he fortuitously bumped into this much younger woman who can’t help but flirt with him on the beach. Or, over the sounds of crashing waves, he tries just a little too hard be charming than is decent for a married man.
Her story feels a bit like life, and his version a bit like soft porn. But she is perhaps a little too innocent in her own story, for a death we know is coming. A police interrogator functions as both a plot device that warns the audience of an impending doom and the arbiter of their competing narrative truths.
The affair feels more realistic than in many other stories where the wife is a shrill, unlovable shrew, who would probably drive anyone away. Noah’s wife (Maura Tierney) is instead warm, vulnerable and if anything, just a bit too motherly. Their love life is often interrupted by children, but Noah doesn’t take it personally. (This interruption happens in two out of the five or six sex scenes in the first episode, though each encounter is emotionally distinct, so it’s only a little gratuitous.)
Noah fixates on Ruth despite still loving his wife, which feels more plausible than the existential crises at the root of a more typical infidelity story such as “American Beauty.” Although Noah’s step-dad is a royal jerk, it’s not enough to justify the affair: the lack of a reasonable cause for his wild urges makes Noah look half crazed and half a jerk, and this elision saves the show from any over-explained justifications.
So despite moments of dialogue that leave too little room for the imagination—the show has a refreshing take on two genres that have worn thin with overtellings: the crime and the affair.