Showtime has always been between Starz and HBO with regards to original series programming, creating a great many more memorable series than the former but never quite reaching the consistent quality heights of the latter. Dexter, Weeds, and Californication are arguably Showtime’s most successful efforts alongside the historical dramas Tudors and Borgias, all of which are good shows worth watching. The premium channel’s sudden jettisoning of all of their “adult programming” series by 2010 might further evidence their desire to be seen more like an HBO than just a cheap knockoff, or maybe they just realized that nobody watches scripted softcore porn shows.
While The Affair might not exactly herald an Age of Showtime, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. The first hour is split down the middle in order to separately follow both Noah and Alison, both recounting the day they first met at a summertime getaway. We meet Noah, played by Dominic West, as he and his family get ready for their summer. They fight, as any family does, but they’re happy. Noah and his wife roll their eyes as their kids do kid things. They reach their destination and meet Ruth Wilson’s Alison, a waitress at the little diner, and when Noah’s daughter starts choking Alison stands by helplessly and later bursts into tears as Noah thanks her for the lunch. One thing leads to another and it’s clear that Alison is a whole lot more reckless than Noah.
Then we meet Alison all over again, from her perspective. She’s also in a relationship, but this one isn’t happy or filled with “those darn kids” moments. It’s damaged, we discover, by what seems to be the death of a child. Alison and her lover (is it her husband? Are they actually married?) fool around in bed and have hushed conversations just like Noah and his wife, but afterwards the bitterness flows back in and Alison can’t stand the guy. Her meeting Noah is more of an escape, and since we know the eponymous affair is between Noah and Alison it’s easy at the outset to view it like this, simply, straightforwardly.
But The Affair is way, way more than that. Yes, it’s somehow gripping enough to watch it through that simple viewfinder — Noah is happy but drawn into the affair nonetheless, Alison is unhappy and will possibly damage herself more with the illicit attraction — but then we come to that diner scene again, the one where Noah’s daughter chokes. This time it’s in Alison’s narration of the story, and it all begins the same way. Noah picks up his little girl as everyone yells around him and Alison stands frozen. But then he flips the girl upside down in an effort to clear her windpipe, where before he just heimliched her until the object came out. Alison suddenly lurches forward and whacks the inverted adolescent on her back, effectively saving her life and effectively making The Affair a whole hell of a lot more complicated. It’s never clear until this exact moment that Noah and Alison are giving two separate accounts of the same story, but in this moment it’s inescapable. One of them is lying, or both of them are, and they can only be doing so because something has gone very, very wrong.
By the end, that straightforward happy-Noah/damaged-Alison dynamic is compromised to such a degree that there may not be any truth to it at all. By Alison’s account, Noah is a player who actively sought her out in order to get with her; by Noah’s account, it was Alison who invited him back to the shower and took her clothes off. The Affair is zoomed in on both of these characters, highly involved with every aspect of their lives, and yet after an entire hour it’s probable that we really have no idea who these people are. Why are they being investigated and prompted to recount the details of their affair? If one or both of them is being untruthful, what’s their endgame? It will be exciting to watch these questions become increasingly muddled as the first season progresses.
Lastly, I’m a sucker for some good foreshadowing in an early episode of what hopefully becomes a long-standing series (I’m also a sucker for Luther‘s Ruth Wilson, which helps me hope that this becomes a long-standing series). There’s a great moment in Noah’s recantation of the diner scene when Alison asks in a waitressy give-me-a-good-tip tone if the family is from out of town, and Noah’s wife says that yes, they’re just here visiting the small town for the summer. Alison smiles and gazes at Noah, and there’s a glimpse in that moment of everything that’s about to go wrong. She puts her hand on Noah’s shoulder and says, with all the glee she can muster: “Welcome to the end of the world.”