Sarah Treem and Hagai Lev boast an impressive roster of work: In Treatment and House of Cards have both been the receipts of much critical acclaim, lauded for their writing and characterisation. Their latest effort, The Affair, aired in America last year, released to widespread praise winning Golden Globes for Best Television Series and Best Actress (for Ruth Wilson).
The Affair premiered on Sky Atlantic last night (13/5/15), with Sky deciding to broadcast the first two episodes. Starring Ruth Wilson as Alison and Dominic West as Noah (once again showcasing the current trend to cast British actors in American roles), The Affair, is, thus far, an intelligent, subtle piece of work.
As signified by the title, an affair, which has clearly been implied to take place between Noah and Alison features as the main, central conflict. Yet The Affair is so much more than its title might initially suggest. Indeed, the title is, for me, a purposefully obvious signifier, indicating to the audience that this affair, whilst featuring, is not the most important aspect of the series as it’s not something that is held back from us. We are immediately told, before the episode even starts, that an affair will take place; it’s what else is going to happen, or indeed the emotional consequences of this affair that will form the programme’s central conceit. As an aside, it’s interesting to note the use of the determiner ‘the’ adding weight to the importance of this event. It’s not ‘an’ affair, it’s ‘the’ affair.
Noah is a teacher, yet aspires to join the heady heights of literary writing. He has just released his first book, a book which his successful novelist father in-law has deemed to be worthy enough, but not perhaps great. Struggling to write his second text, he travels with his wife and children to Montauk to stay with his in-laws for the summer. Noah is happy in his marriage, and indeed, it is refreshing to see the physical relationship between him and his wife Helen (Maura Tierney). He clearly loves his wife, yet he appears to feel emasculated by his father in-law’s wealth and success. Visiting a diner, he notices Alison (Ruth Wilson) a married waitress, who we learn is struggling to reconcile herself with the death of her young son.
With this premise, you would be forgiven for dismissing The Affair as your standard drama, complete with romantic entanglements and dark secrets. You would be wrong. What makes The Affair so interesting and so innovative is its chosen narrative style. The central affair is told through two completely separate perspectives: Noah’s and Alison’s. The pair, as it gradually transpires, are being questioned by police regarding an incident that we do not yet understand. The police questioning occasionally serves as a voiceover, or at times (much like it did in True Detective) providing a pause, a moment of reflection for the character as we are brought back to present day events. The first two episodes last night signalled the change in perspectives with an interjected title card to indicate that we were now witnessing events through Alison’s memories, with the previous recollections clearly told from Noah’s point of view.
Some may think this narrative, retelling the same events with at times minute details altered (such as Alison’s dress changing from revealing to more modest dependent on the person telling the event) may become tiresome, but so far, it works; wonderfully so.
The circumstances under which Noah and Alison meet for example, are particularly telling, revealing much about their characters. They both agree that they met in a diner, they both tell the same story of Noah’s daughter suddenly choking at the table and they both agree that Alison became quite upset after the incident. This is where the similarities end. Noah, in his desire to somehow write himself as some kind of saviour into his own story, casts himself as the stoic, hyper-masculine who, through his calm rational, is able to save his daughter. Alison perceives him as a man who panics, and in failing to listen to her advice, is inactive: the daughter is only saved when Alison intervenes. Similarly, when they meet again at the end of the first episode the same line is echoed in both memories ‘you found me/ I found you’ yet attributed to different characters. In one narrative, Alison is the temptress who undresses provocatively, in another, Noah is the seducer.
Beautifully shot, and intelligently so, the change in narrative never feels clunky. Nor does it feel stale, at least thus far. I can only hope that the rest of the series lives up to the sublime opening episodes.