October 12, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “The Affair”


THE AFFAIR:  Sunday 10PM on Showtime – DVR Alert

Sundays already have too much television to watch, and Showtime isn’t making life any easier with its excellent new THE AFFAIR.  Although paired on the night with Homeland, it’s of a piece with the network’s Masters of Sex, another compelling exploration of the boundless mysteries of human emotions and sexuality.

The Affair is set during summer in the Hamptons, but about a million miles away from the pulp melodrama of ABC’s Revenge, another Sunday drama with the same geographic location.  It’s been created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi; Levi was the creator of the Israeli drama that became HBO’s In Treatment, and Treem was one of that show’s writer/producers (she’s since been part of the House of Cards team).  Like In Treatment, The Affair is precise in its depiction of mess, and also like that series, it has a very specific narrative hook.  It resembles the far too little seen indie film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her in telling the same story from dual perspectives, with differences both tiny and enormous.  In the pilot, written by Treem and directed by Mark Mylod, the break between the two versions comes almost exactly halfway through.

The pilot takes place in a single day, and we first see that day from the viewpoint of Noah Solloway (Dominic West), a New York public school teacher and recently published novelist.  His book was respectably received but far from the best-sellers turned out by Noah’s father-in-law Bruce Butler (John Doman), a casually mean-spirited millionaire whose charity–which he will never let Noah forget–supports the family brownstone and a lifestyle better than a teacher’s paycheck would allow.  Noah is spending the summer at Bruce’s mansion with his family:  wife Helen (Maura Tierney), teen daughter Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles, a welcome survivor of the late Bunheads), sons Martin and Trevor (Jake Siciliano and Jadon Sand), and younger daughter Stacey (Leya Catlett).  Noah is happily married, but not content with his life, and restless amid the complications of dealing with his wife and children.

Once in town, Noah and his brood stop for lunch at a local restaurant, where the waitress is Alison (Ruth Wilson, best known as the scarily charismatic serial killer on Luther, although she also put in her time as the female lead of The Lone Ranger).  Noah’s daughter Stacey chokes on something there but is rescued (in Noah’s recollection, he’s the one performing the maneuver; in Alison’s, she’s the one who saves the girl).  There is a magnetism between the two of them, although not one either is ready to acknowledge.  In the pilot’s second half, we follow Alison’s recollection of that day, a terribly sad one because it would have been the birthday of her young son, who died several years earlier.  Alison’s marriage to Cole (Joshua Jackson) is barely holding together (this plotline is close enough to Eleanor Rigby that one wonders if it was an influence on the series), and she’s a tangle of resentments and misery.

We know that something bad will follow Noah and Alison getting together, because the entire story is told as a set of flashbacks as the two of them are separately questioned by the police as part of an investigation that hasn’t yet been explained.  The Affair, though, isn’t a thriller.  (Enough time will elapse between Noah and Alison meeting in the pilot and the present-day interrogation scenes that Alison will have had another child.)  Rather, it’s concerned with the details that change people’s lives.  Treem and Levi do a superb job of introducing their characters, even differentiating all of Noah’s children so well that by the end of the first hour, each of them is a recognizable individual.  Although The Affair is frankly (but not exploitively) about sex, it’s also about class and family, and the way that memory is shaded to hide unpleasant truths.

The series has been wonderfully cast, from the infinitely watchable West and Wilson (although the latter’s US accent isn’t quite as polished as West’s–he, of course, had years of practice on The Wire), to Tierney and Jackson and the younger performers.  Director Mark Mylod, known for his broader work on Entourage, proves himself very capable of handling more subtle, atmospheric material, and frequent Entourage cinematographer Steven Fierberg, working with production designer Kevin Thompson, create a Hamptons where luxury is present (even Alison’s home is striking), but there are undercurrents of unease and stark solitude.

DVRs, in other words, will continue to be overloaded on Sundays, as The Affair is an instantly absorbing piece of work that joins the remarkable current cavalcade of first-rate TV drama.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."