Television, generally speaking, communicates in the close, reliable third person. There may be first-person narration, personal fantasy sequences, and dramatized individual delusions—and still, television is, for the most part, a third-person business. The ostensibly objective camera sees more than any one person is likely or able to notice while simultaneously drawing us into the experience of whoever happens to be its focus. Even when characters themselves are unreliable—self-involved, self-aggrandizing, oblivious, lying, suffering from some supernatural or medical condition—the camera still shows us the larger truth.
The Affair, Showtime’s very promising, potentially delicious, psychologically astute new drama from the creators of In Treatment, delivers a pair of unreliable narrators, not by radically reinventing what cameras do, but by setting competing versions of events side by side. Noah Solloway (Dominic West), a seemingly happily married father of four, and Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson), a married woman grieving for a young son who has recently died, meet in a diner in the Hamptons and, eventually, begin an affair. Some undisclosed number of years later, they are shown recalling the intricacies of that relationship to police officers, who are investigating we know not what.
As with the woodcutter and the priest in Rashomon, Noah’s and Alison’s versions of events do not always square. But unlike Rashomon, Noah and Alison do seem to agree about the general shape of their story—they met at a diner, they met on a beach, they talked about an outdoor shower. It’s the intonations that are different: Who was friendlier, who was flirtier, who came on to whom? And those differences, copious as they are, seem more a matter of memory, of innate human fallibility and our distorted sense of ourselves than the product of outright schemes, machinations, or lies. On The Affair, unreliability is the default condition.
The series begins with Noah’s version of events. A recently published novelist and public school teacher, he is readying his brood for a summer in the Hamptons at his rich, condescending father-in-law’s palatial estate. Noah and his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), who live in a beautiful Brooklyn brownstone subsidized by her father, have two girls and two boys and also a sex life, even if it is regularly interrupted. As Noah tells the police in voice-over, when he looks back on this time in his life, there was nothing wrong with it.
The same is not true for Alison, whose version of the story begins halfway through the episode. She is still deeply grieving her son’s death. Her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson), is trying to hold the relationship together, even as Alison can’t really seem to hold on to anything. They also have a sex life, but emotionally Alison is remote. She still thinks that feeling any joy at all is a kind of betrayal of her dead child, and she seethes that Cole, sometimes, seems capable of happiness again.
Through Noah’s recollection and then through Alison’s, the show outlines their first few meetings. In Noah’s memory, his family piles into a diner, and Alison is their waitress. When Noah and Helen’s youngest daughter nearly chokes on a marble, Alison helps. (Be warned that the death of young children is a recurring theme and threat in The Affair.) Noah’s quick thinking saves his child, and, afterward, going to check on his son, he bumps into Alison coming out of the bathroom, crying. Later that night, he bumps into her on the beach, and she greets him with “You found me.” She comes on to him, and he hesitantly, chastely plays along. She invites him to walk her home and then hops into her outdoor shower, finally making him uncomfortable enough to leave. Walking away, he hears shouting and comes back to witness her and Cole in a physical confrontation that becomes a sexual encounter.
Nothing about these series of events seems odd. Noah’s story plays believably, like the events in a well-made, carefully paced, realist prestige drama (with the shallow women they so often contain)—until we get Alison’s version of events. In her memory, Noah’s difficult, rambunctious family clambers into the diner, where she’s the one to save Noah’s daughter. He seeks her out in the bathroom to see if she’s OK. Alison, who has had a draining day—including a visit to her son’s grave, an emotionally taxing party full of small children, and silent fighting with her husband—is minding her own business on the beach when Noah stumbles upon her and says, “I found you.” In this version, he’s the one who flirts with her, the one who insists on walking her home, the one who coos over the shower, who kisses her good night. He leaves only to come back, unbidden, and witness the fight and the sex—neither nearly as cruel as it seemed from a distance.
The Affair takes this delectable he-said, she-said dynamic and tricks it out with deep psychological underpinnings. It suggests—juicily, intelligently—that these differences in recollection are due to a constellation of factors, not any single constant. Maybe Noah’s children don’t behave badly in his memories because parents of four children grade chaos on a curve, and what happened in that diner didn’t rate to him. The fact that Noah and Alison each remember saving his daughter—well, aren’t we all the heroes of our own stories? And wouldn’t Alison, as the mother of a dead son, fervently want to believe she could rescue another child?
Moreover, it’s possible that Noah’s and Alison’s memories are not equally unreliable. (I’ll be interested to see if The Affair becomes a gendered viewing experience, with male and female audience members tending to find one of the protagonists more trustworthy than the other.) Alison’s version of events may not be entirely accurate, but her version of Noah seems much more plausible than his version of her. He sees her as a sexually voracious party girl—he has no clue, no hint of her sadness. Alison may be more sexually available than she understands, but her version of Noah, a little friendlier and flirtier than he means to be, is comparatively no stretch. If they don’t see each other clearly—who does in first encounters?—at least Alison’s version jibes with what we know about both characters. Noah’s does not.
And it’s possible that’s because the person Noah sees least clearly is himself. As the episode begins, Noah is swimming at his athletic club, where a woman shamelessly hits on him, until she sees his wedding ring and apologizes. This appears initially like a character-establishing bit on the part of the show: This man is still desirable to other women, and he’s flattered by that, but he’s not the straying sort. Then this exact scenario plays out with Alison—another younger, attractive woman shamelessly and without much provocation throws herself at him—only this time, Alison’s own memory is there as a counterpoint. Maybe the woman at the swim club, like Alison, found Noah far more flirtatious than he remembers. Once you know he’s not reliable, you begin to see his unreliability everywhere. Perhaps he exudes sexual availably, whether he means to or not, whether he knows it or not. For that matter, maybe Alison does too.
Watching one episode of a TV show is a little like going on a first date. It’s hard to tell if you’ll really like each other, but it’s easy to know if you won’t. The Affair is a great first date that has the makings of a great series: pleasurable, provocative, insightful, and with the promise of sexiness. It ably sidesteps the potential cutesiness in its structure. Just when the sheer number of disagreements in Noah’s and Alison’s memories starts to verge on the far-fetched, The Affair gives us something about which they more or less agree (at least relative to everything else). The most dramatic moment in the whole episode—that final sexual encounter between Cole and Alison—is, with some understandable variations, one that Alison and Noah remember similarly. When it comes to sex, from the start, they are on the same wavelength.