First look UK TV review: The Affair Season 1 (spoiler-free)
James R | On 17, May 2015
“Do you remember what happened?” “Like it was yesterday.”
Months after The Affair scooped the Golden Globes for Best Drama Series and Best Actress, The Affair has finally been released in the UK. What took TV land so long? You’ll be flummoxed after the fantastic opening double-bill, which was broadcast on Sky Atlantic on Wednesday 13th May, but that delayed premiere, as awards season fades into the past, is oddly appropriate: the drama unfolds under the haze of memory.
The set up is simple: Noah (Dominic West) is on holiday in Montauk with his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), and their kids. But one day, his daughter chokes in a diner, an accident that introduces him to waitress Alison (Ruth Wilson), who is also married – to ranch owner Cole (Joshua Jackson).
She smiles and flirts, but she’s also dealing with a tragedy of her own. After the choking incident, she disappears to the diner toilets to compose herself. There, Noah accidentally stumbles upon her and comforts her.
20 minutes later, we’re back in the diner and he’s the one smiling and flirting. The daughter chokes in the diner and Alison heads to the bathroom – only for Noah to knock on the door to speak to her.
Every episode follows this same structure, telling events from his perspective and then hers. It’s a device that leaves everything up to interpretation, turning that simple set up into something dizzyingly complex. It takes two to tango, The Affair tells us, but they’re not necessarily thinking of the same tune.
The 30 minutes spent in each of their company gives each character more than enough time to tell their side of the tale. Dominic West is superb as the grouchy writer, struggling to think of ideas for his next book and bitter about his condescending father-in-law. Ruth Wilson, who impressed all those years ago in the BBC’s Jane Eyre, is equally brilliant: alluring and kind-hearted.
Flip to the other side of the coin, though, and he’s the one who grins seductively and cracks the jokes, while she is in agony over the loss of her child. She wanders the town looking for a way to escape, introverted and frowning. He pursues her, from a night-time beach encounter to a soiree at his wife’s dad’s house.
It also, perhaps more crucially, gives us a chance to get to know their partners: Maura Tierney, who charmed audiences for years as Abby in ER, is immediately likeable as Noah’s other half, looking after the kids, encouraging him and mediating with her father. Joshua Jackson, meanwhile, is also in pain, but supportive to his mood-swinging spouse. Both are generous supporting turns, bringing depth to our leads’ marital bonds and both just as capable of displaying a different streak to their personality.
“How many times do you think we’ve had sex?” Alison asks him, during one intimate session. When the evening arrives, though, and they’re standing by a car, events take a far less cuddly tone.
That shifting mood is captured by the cast in the smallest action: Alison offering Noah a drink, or him clutching his daughter while ordering some jam; Helen glaring at the waitress or correcting her dress strap. Everyone seems to be looking for some way to control their story, because of grief, insecurity or another urge.
The narrative, of course, is precisely governed by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, who worked together on In Treatment. Their writing alters each line of dialogue to startling effect: “You found me,” exclaims Alison, cheerfully, by the sea. “I found you,” he declares, brightly, half an hour later.
What makes The Affair such a consuming piece of drama, though, is that the differences are not just on the page: they are visual, acoustic, running right down through each technical department. In Noah’s account, Wilson is made up, with colourful hair and glinting eyes. In Alison’s, she has no make-up on, while he has perfect teeth and the screen glows around him. It’s a triumph of perspective, achieved by a harmonious collaboration between everyone from the costume department to DoP Steven Fierberg and director Mark Mylod – the fact that he has his name to both the first episodes of The Affair and Game of Thrones Season 5 is testament to just how good he is.
Their contrasting version of events are narrated in the future to someone who appears to be a police officer: a setting that, combined with a brief interlude involving Noah’s son, immediately suggests that their affair will not end well. But with our sympathies lying on both sides of the fence, The Affair emerges not just as clever piece of story-telling, but as a study of culpability: it understands that the act of remembering is inherently emotional, that recollections are filtered through feelings. Both parties think the other is to blame, a split that turns an ordinary fling into an absorbing study of memory as well as romance. The line between love and guilt is thin; The Affair paints it up close, finding endless shades of grey between its blurred edges.
Season 1 to 3 of The Affair is available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on-demand on NOW, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. The contract-free service includes access to other Sky channels, including Sky 1 (Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash), Sky Atlantic (Westworld, Game of Thrones, Billions) and FOX UK (The Walking Dead).
Photo: Phil Caruso/SHOWTIME