|Ruth Wilson and Dominic West.|
Where Showtime’s exploration of adultery is headed nobody can tell, but ‘The Affair’ has bated the hook
“The Affair” opens with a trope that helped define the mid-20th century: the plight of the debilitated modern American man. John Cheever wrote short stories about him, and Jack Lemmon played him in movies. He’s a middle class guy who feels frustrated and boxed in—and who has, in effect, been wimpified by the routines he fell into while striving for the American dream.
In Showtime’s alluring new series, now it’s the turn of 21st-century New Yorker Noah ( Dominic West ), a public-school teacher who’s just published his first book and lives in a brownstone with his wife and four children, courtesy of a loan from his in-laws. He’s off to spend the summer in gentlemanly fashion at the in-laws’ house in the Hamptons town of Montauk on the tip of Long Island.
The sweet life does not come without a cost. Although Noah explains that he loves his beautiful wife, Helen ( Maura Tierney ), we can see that even when she is in a sensual mood their lovemaking seems constantly interrupted by children. Two older ones are a starved-looking teenage girl with a big mouth who taunts her parents with references to getting high, and a brother with even more tormenting behavior.
Noah’s father-in-law (played by John Doman ) is a writer made rich by Hollywood movies. He is also a master shriveller who issues put-downs like a Gatling gun. I enjoyed most of your book, he tells his son-in-law over a drink by the sea, “Of course, you could have used a decent editor.” And “Now you can finally quit that horrible job of yours.” Or the one that hurts most: “Everyone has one book in them. Almost nobody has two.” Noah can barely manage a peep in reply.
Given the show’s title, there should be no surprise in what’s coming next in Montauk. Enter the attractive waitress and apparent free spirit named Alison ( Ruth Wilson ), who brushes the sand off her long legs, gives Noah come-hither looks and offers him a cigarette.
Can it really be that easy to flip a man’s switch?
Please don’t answer. Anyway, this is about the time when “The Affair” puts on the brakes and reveals that everything we’ve seen in the first half-hour is through Noah’s lens—which is even more distorting than viewers may have intuited. Now the show flips to Alison’s point of view.
Far from being a blithe temptress, she is a fragile, grieving soul in agony. Her husband ( Joshua Jackson ) has resorted to constant demands for sex, as if these attentions will somehow bring her back to life. The scenes of her submission, which play out in Bergmanesque quiet, are sickening, or should be. As for Noah—in Alison’s eyes, he is the one who will come on to her after she waits on his family in a local eatery. When they meet later on the beach, it is he who flirts, who offers her a cigarette and who insists on walking her home, not the other way around.
The only moment in the first episode when the future lovers seem on the same plane is during a scene when Alison’s husband pushes her facedown over the hood of a truck and ravages her while Noah watches from the bushes and Alison sees him watching what they both witness as her resignation to degradation.
What is really going on here? Why should we care (about Noah in particular)? The script by Sarah Treem, the show’s co-creator with Hagai Levi, can be murky. Then again, Noah and Alison are telling their stories to a detective, apparently in the aftermath of a major event or crime. It will be a jaded viewer indeed who can resist coming back for more after the first episode ends.
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