In the leadup to the fall season, when waves of new shows start flooding in, it’s easy to like something just because it’s different — after watching a half-dozen network dramas that are trying to be something that’s already come before, coming across a new show with a unique voice can feel like breathing again. Thus, this summer, “The Affair” had us gasping.
But a great pilot isn’t a guarantee that the series to follow will live up to that expectation of quality, which is why it’s such a relief to look at the following three episodes Showtime’s made available to critics, which continue digging into a story that is far from simple.
Showtime’s smart, subtle, adult drama about adultery has a fascinating cast which covers such a bizarre range of television genres: Dominic West and Ruth Wilson are established veterans of the premium drama scene thanks to their work on “The Wire” and “Luther.” But Maura Tierney’s experience includes everything from several seasons of “E.R.” to the (legendary) multi-camera sitcom “Newsradio,” and the last time Joshua Jackson spent this much time by the water, he was trying to win the heart of Katie Holmes on “Dawson’s Creek.”
There’s no question of anyone’s talents, though, and the quartet serve ably as the anchors of the action. Likability is a concern with a show like this — the entire premise is, after all, not only built around the concept that the two lead characters are committing a transgressive act, but hinting at the possibility that they’re involved with an even worse crime. Like “Lost,” the island is full of mysteries, but the characters aren’t trapped within them — they’re creating them.
The mysteries, though, are born of one of the show’s most intriguing elements: Its structure, which not only splits each episode between two different points of view — Noah (West) and Alison (Wilson) — but then filters those POV shifts through flashback. Noah and Alison are telling their versions of the events that lead to their affair, but those versions don’t always mesh, from major moments to minor details.
Thus, the episodes to come take us further into the future that Noah and Alison now live in, teasing out clues as to how their lives have changed since their first eventful summer together — while also slowly revealing the reason why they’re sitting in an interrogation room, telling a detective their stories.
One interesting twist to this is that the most interesting character to watch, episode by episode, is Helen. Tierney is given one of the tougher acting challenges of the show, as she’s essentially playing two variations of the same character, depending on whose point-of-view we’re in. Noah’s perspective highlights her kindness and courtesy almost to a fault (perhaps as a reflection of his own guilt?) while Alison’s POV continually draws out Helen’s more imperious tendencies; it’s easy to suspect that Alison might have the more accurate read, but that involves trusting either of our two leads, and “The Affair” isn’t here to make things easy like that.
“The Affair” has its flaws — the back-and-forth between Noah and Alison as they tiptoe towards breaking their marriage vows often feels like that — a back-and-forth, with stutters and false starts, rather than a natural progression. The show also falls into a trap way too many shows seem to struggle with lately: the secondary teenage girl plotline. From “Homeland” to “The Leftovers,” there seems to be an obsession with the plight of the adolescent young woman — oftentimes bound up in her emerging sexuality, and the problems that causes the older men around her — and it’s rarely executed deftly. (In the case of Dana Brody of “Homeland,” it comes dangerously close to ruining entire seasons of the show.)
Julia Goldani Telles, who plays Noah and Helen’s 16-year-old daughter Whitney, is a solid actress — I know this because of Telles’ great work as Sasha, an acerbic prima ballerina on ABC Family’s “Bunheads.” But so far, none of her story seems to push beyond the usual tropes of “bad girl acting out for attention”; perhaps she’s part of a bigger build-up to something, but there’s scant evidence of that yet.
It’s not enough to drag “The Affair” down, though, especially given how well the show mines the depths of its premise and location. The Hamptons, where most of the show’s action is set, isn’t just a “Sex and the City”-esque playground for the rich — it’s almost its own character, its history and community far more than just backdrop for the action. In just a few episodes, the class struggles between locals and “summer people,” as well as the traditions and locations that have existed on the island for decades, give the show a deeper sense of place than most series achieve with years on the air.
All of this helps “The Affair” deliver on its original promise — to be different from what’s come before — while also delivering an additional edge of genuine intrigue. Many shows like to say they’re more than the mysteries at their core. But “The Affair” achieves that, while also using those tools to hook viewers even deeper.
“The Affair” airs Sundays at 10pm on Showtime.