The Affair (Showtime) Series Premiere 2014 “1” Review

Memory is as fallible as it malleable. The past is a patchwork quilt we assemble out of dreams, feelings, moments and sensations. A shared experience does not boil down to a shared truth. The Affair, Showtime’s elegant, hauntingly drawn portrait of infidelity– it’s inception and the aftermath that leads to the participants, Alison (Ruth Wilson) and Noah (Dominic West), recounting their story in an interrogation room–gives us two narrators telling one story, but their shared memories are broken like fractured shards of a mirror. It is left up to the audience to sort facts from lies, differing viewpoints and narrator bias.

In its first hour, I am more inclined to believe Alison’s version of events. Her first memory of seeing Noah is seeing him holding his daughter in his arms. Having lost her own son, Gabriel, the image would be a vivid one, particularly on Gabriel’s first birthday since his death. Through Alison’s eyes, the world is a dark and unrelenting place. Nothing numbs her pain, especially not her husband Cole (Joshua Jackson), who is trying his hardest. But he is moving forward with his life and at that time Alison could not forgive him for not drowning with her.

By contrast, Noah’s life was one of a frustrated middle aged man who can no longer understand his older children and whose younger children are constantly interrupting moments of intimacy between him and his wife Helen (Maura Tierney). A public school teacher by trade, Noah wrote a book that did not turn him into an overnight sensation and he lives in the emasculating shadow of his father-in-law, a successful author with a summer home and enough money to buy his daughter’s family the brownstone Noah himself could never afford. In the present, he tells his interrogator he was content with his life, but we see a man writhing with unrest.

He says his first memory of Alison is of her face, but it is in fact of her body. He sees her not as a person, but as a sexual entity, a temptress who smiles and coyly invites him into an outdoor shower with her. In his version of events, Alison initiates the affair, and later he witnesses Cole slam her against the hood of a car in what through Noah’s eyes could only be rape. When the same sequence of events plays out through Alison’s eyes, her chance encounter with Noah on the beach is chaste. He coaxes her into sharing cigarettes, taking a stroll home and he kisses her without her consent. When Cole returns home, Alison begs him to make the pain stop, but rebukes his gentleness and encourages him to be rough–saying a very clear, consensual yes before they engage in rough sex against the car. These two version of the same event varied by emotional viewpoints and even clothing (Noah remembers Alison wearing a short summer dress; she remembers wearing shorts and wrapping a shawl around her shoulders) create a rationale for both characters to engage in an affair. Noah sees a chance to be heroic and save Alison from a traumatic marriage. Alison sees him watching her have sex with her husband and the voyeuristic nature of the experience awakens a spark within her. After feeling nothing for so long, she feels alive, if only for a few minutes.

Why Alison and Noah are being interrogated remains to be seen. We only know that in the present, Alison has another child. In the past, Noah and Alison met on a small island during Noah’s family vacation. They went back to Alison’s home and their affair began. As for the particulars, both characters have a reason to be unreliable narrators. Noah paints himself as a hero saving his daughter from choking on a marble and a gentlemen walking away when Alison strips in front of him. He has a family to think of, and an idea of himself that he wants to protect. Meanwhile, Alison admits she thought her husband’s happiness was evil, an unacceptable betrayal to the memory of their son. She was even planning on ending her own life in four years if the pain did not abate. She has less of a reason to lie, but anger and frustration could have led her to invite Noah into the shower, or Noah could be fabricating the entire idea of her seduction, seeing only what he wanted and not the heartbroken, aching woman in front of him.

How deep their deception goes depends on how high the stakes are for Alison and Noah in the present. Alison has a child and Noah presumably still has a family he would like to protect. The undeniable truth is their actions triggered something. Did one of their spouses die? Did their affair cause Noah’s eldest son to be pushed over the edge from faking suicide to committing it? The Affair gives us the pieces and asks us to assemble the story and decide for ourselves who these people are and why they did the thins they did.

Complicating matters even further are the gender politics. From Noah’s body fragmentation of Alison to Alison’s disconnect from Cole and his own pain. Sex is the only common ground Alison and Noah share. Noah wants it and sex is the only thing that makes Alison feel. West and Wilson brilliantly play this duo from all sides: as they are, as they are seen and as they see themselves. The Affair is instantly captivating. The answers are elusive, but the questions create the most dramatically satisfying hour of television I have seen so far this season.

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