Review: The Affair 1×1 (US: Showtime)

The Affair  

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime

Oh imagine the irony: Detective McNulty – the son-in-law to Commissioner Rawls! For fans of The Wire at least, this is probably the most exciting thing about Showtime’s The Affair, in which Dominic West plays a New York novelist/teacher married to successful businesswoman Maura Tierney (The Whole Truth), but still forced to leech off her rich father, John Doman.

Because The Affair is slow stuff. Very very slow stuff. So slow that every so often it pretends to kill a child, just to ensure the audience stays awake.

But the fabulous BeTipul and In Treatment – which were created and written by The Affair’s co-creators Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem respectively – were equally slow, and The Affair is as psychologically engrossing, albeit in a very different way. It sees West going out to visit Doman with Tierney and his four kids in a resort town in Long Island for the summer, where he meets waitress Ruth Wilson (Luther), who’s recently lost her own child and is married to the abusive, cheating, embittered Joshua Jackson. West and Wilson hit it off and despite West having avoided all previous temptations to stray, he and Wilson end up having an affair.

So far so French, right down to the Gauloises, albeit with two English protagonists faking American accents only intermittently successfully.

The big twist is that the story is told in flashback, from both West and Wilson’s points of view. Literally told, because both West and West are relating their sides of the affair separately to another person for quite a surprising reason – but if I told you what that was, I’d be spoiling one of the first episode’s big surprises that don’t involve the fake-out deaths of one of West’s kids.

As a result, the episode is told in two parts, the first West’s, the second Wilson’s, and we see the same scenes told from two different perspectives and with two different build-ups and follow-ons. More importantly, we also see differences, since West and Wilson’s stories sometimes differ – for reasons that become clearer as the episode progresses.

Whom can we believe, when for example West portrays Wilson as a seducer, him as innocent, while she says the opposite? What is the true story? What actually happened?

All good questions, none of which gets answers before the end of the episode. Indeed, for all I know, we might never get answers, which to a certain extent might well be the point of the show: the real world’s lack of an objective truth, only subjective truths. But the show is also less about an affair per se, as about the fall out from an affair and how that emotionally impacts both those involved and those close to them.

Now, how much you’ll want to watch this may well depend on how much you’re likely to be interested in regular-type people doing regular-type things, albeit regular-type people with perhaps a bit more money than you or I have. You’re also asked to sympathise with adulterers, which might be something you can’t do – particularly with West’s character being a cock in both versions. The fact that Wilson so successfully played a sociopathic liar opposite The Wire’s Idris Elba in Luther – to the extent that a spin-off show based around her was planned by the BBC – throws in an additional supertextual element of doubt for the viewer aware of her past and the possible reasons for her casting.

But this is gripping stuff if drama rather than just explosions and ray guns* interests you. While West for once is the weakest acting link, Wilson and Jackson are both on excellent form and Doman is clearly relishing being more Borgia than Baltimore cop opposite West. Compared to the likes of Satisfaction, it’s considerably more grown up, while still avoiding the Rectify trap of absolute and tedious mimesis.

Probably the best drama of the fall season so far. If you’re in the US, you can watch the whole first episode on YouTube; if not, here’s a trailer.

* I loves explosions and ray guns, me. But there’s more to me than that.

  • Mark Carroll

    This does sound interesting, and the casting indeed looks promising. I'm certainly curious about your third episode verdict.

    (I still haven't decided if I want to watch “In Treatment” or the Israeli original. I also wonder, for either, if it is worth sticking with all its seasons, or giving up earlier. Some things are cancelled prematurely, some for good reason.)

  • bob

    ” it pretends to kill a child, just to ensure the audience stays awake.”

    You really think that? It seemed to me to be the least subtle moment of the episode, yes, but more about making the point that the kid is to be watched. <spoiler>He seemed to be trying to hurt his siblings too.</spoiler>

    ” throws in an additional supertextual element of doubt for the viewer aware of her past and the possible reasons for her casting.”

    Yes, very much so.

  • It was a bit of a joke, but given there are two near-deaths of kids in the first half hour, and a replaying of one of those from a different perspective in the second half, not 100% a joke. Most shows can get by with just one child's near-death in the first episode.

  • I actually preferred In Treatment to BeTipul, which was as close to theatre as you get on TV these days. But it's a big commitment and I didn't managed to finish the first season or watch any of the second. I did watch the third season, though, which I thought very good, although you do have to watch all the way through to the final week for all the pieces to come together.

  • Mark Carroll

    Thank you. I might give it a try.

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