Showtime is known for having great ideas for series. Dexter, Weeds, Nurse Jackie, The Borgias; all of these started off as quirky, creative offerings that helped distinguish Showtime from its premium rivals. But the network also can have a problem with holding on for too long. It also can limit its shows to just one dynamic character, surrounded by a lot of boring, static ones (see Dexter and Weeds, on both accounts). While Ray Donovan still struggles to become a great show (though remains a very watchable one), and Masters of Sex took a regrettable nosedive in its second season, Showtime’s creation of Penny Dreadful and its newest series The Affair (created by Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem) have introduced a new class of series that, if handled properly, could be ones that redefine the network’s programming, and galvanize it again as a place of daring and interesting storytelling. Hit the jump if you think everyone has one book in them, but almost nobody has two.
The best way to have gone into watching The Affair‘s premiere was to know almost nothing about it. For those who were able to have that experience, “Pilot” was a deliciously twisty hour. The first narrative focused on Noah Solloway (Dominic West), a charming and handsome public school teacher, married to Helen (Maura Tierney), and father of four children. But from the start, The Affair was rife with visual metaphor and foreshadowing about what Noah was about to experience. In the opening scene, a fellow swimmer eyes him up and wants to talk afterwards, until she sees he’s married. He doesn’t openly discourage her, and that kind of ambivalence sets a clear stage.
As the Solloways prepare to leave for the summer for Helen’s father’s mansion on the shore, each of the children has a death-related episode or conversation. Older son Martin horrifically fakes a suicide, Harold and Maude-style, and later, his younger brother Trevor asks Noah which family member he would throw out of a plane, if he had to for them to survive. Trevor is disappointed in Noah’s response — he wanted him to say Martin. Their oldest child, Jules, is rail-thin, and is hinted at having an eating disorder, while the younger daughter has the most harrowing episode of the bunch when she chokes, but is saved.
Noah’s experiences are also narrated by his future self, who is being interrogated about that summer, and what happened afterwards. His recollection is that he saved his daughter from choking, and felt seduced by a sexually coy local waitress, Alison (Ruth Wilson). Their first meeting is when their stories begin to diverge, as we learn in Part 2, which focuses on the entire story again, from Alison’s perspective. The details are in some cases small (Noah and Alison remember different clothes, settings, hairstyles), but some of the conversations and recollections are as completely opposite as can be.
Noah remembers his initial few meetings with Alison as being seduced by a scantily-clad beach babe, while she remembers it as her being sad, confused, and bundled up, seduced by a charming but persistent visitor to the coast. Where the two stories link up though is during a session of outdoor sex between Alison and her husband Cole (Joshua Jackson), which from Noah’s perspective starts out like rape (in Alison’s, she is the instigator). Regardless, they both recall her looking at Noah while Cole bends her over a car, where she climaxes. In that moment, she seems to reawaken something in her she thought was gone.
While Noah’s story only hints at death, Alison’s contains it overtly. She and Cole lost their young son, Gabriel, several years ago. Though Cole is recovering, Alison isn’t, and resents him being happy. But Cole is also not completely innocent — he flirts with a local friend, and his possessive and ill-tempered nature is made clear from the start. He also seems to have sex with her whenever he wants (which is constantly), while she seems to get nothing from it.
Noah’s sex life with Helen is also examined, though in this case, the feelings are mutual, but interrupted by their children. Sex really isn’t the thing of The Affair, though, which is a relief. If it were, it would be a pedestrian story of a summer fling. Instead, The Affair seems poised to focus more on marriage, while also adding in a mystery element as Alison and Noah are interrogated. And, at the end of the hour, the biggest surprise is lobbed: Alison says she needs to leave to pick up her child. Whose child, and how far into the future are we now?
“Pilot” set up a tantalizing possibility for what The Affair could become, which is not just one kind of show. It’s temporal jumps, gorgeous use of setting, minimalist soundtrack, narrative shifts and mysterious allure each play an important role in creating an immersive and complicated world. The Affair may be the most different and the most interesting series Showtime has ever done. And while it’s really too early to make a claim like that, that’s just how good I thought this pilot was.
Episode Rating: A
Musings and Miscellanea:
— Fans of The Wire: how amazing is it that Rawls is McNulty’s father-in-law??
— I loved the parallels within the story, like how Bruce is a successful novelist, and Noah is less so (Bruce is also a dick who looks down on Bruce’s day job as a teacher). Also, that both Alison and Noah are married to people from wealthy families, but feel apart from them.
— I absolutely adored the way the Solloway’s homelife was portrayed. It wasn’t easy, but it was affable. The same is true for Helen and Noah’s relationship. He’s kind of coming off as a dog here, but it will be interesting to see how that plays out in the coming weeks.
— Cole, meanwhile, seems like the worst. And yet, sometimes he says and does the right things. Complications!
— Martin: “You suck.” Noah: “that’s a more defendable hypothesis.”
— Sign of a good pilot: necessary bulk exposition happens naturally, and it did so here.
— There were some over-the-top elements, like Lester, the worm-level boss at the restaurant. “If only I could out my dick inside that girl before I turn 18. And I did! The end. God, I love that story.”
— “Everyone has one book in them. Almost nobody has two” – Bruce. He isn’t wrong.