“Do you remember seeing him for the first time?”
Hell is other people. From Rashomon to Gone Girl, there are no shortage of narratives in which the differing perspectives reveal the difficulty of determining the objective truth of something. The best of these often become commentary on the inevitability of fundamental miscommunication between people who think they love each other. The Affair is, ostensibly, about the disparate stories of people involved in an extramarital relationship, being recounted in the wake of something larger and more damning. If it sounds grim, it is; it’s also fascinating.
The Affair isn’t entirely a surprise, perhaps, coming from creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, who previously used a high-concept hook as the tip of a psychological iceberg when they developed In Treatment, the one-episode-a-weekday HBO drama that tracked a therapist’s shifting identity through the lens of his recurring patients. That sort of unblinking warts-and-all character work is sharply on display in The Affair. The two narratives present in the premiere episode beautifully take note of every detail—so much that to describe the plot would be to spoil things. (Treem’s writing rewards careful scrutiny, since the distance between accounts does as much for characterization as anything explicitly shown.) But from the different ways the same family orders lunch to the shots of the ocean as equally a picturesque escape and the engulfing void, The Affair offers the parallel unfurling of two stories about one thing that are often so different as to be unrecognizable. The painstaking attention to detail makes powerful character beats out of even the most passing, unspoken discrepancies. This is a series that constantly reminds you stories can’t be trusted.
And with a setup like this, the full intricacies of the concept would be nearly impossible to pull off without the cast it has. As Noah, Dominic West brings all his affable sleaze to bear as an Everyman whose concerns—affluence that’s loaned to him, children who torment him, a wife who asks things of him—give him just enough ennui to make the friction of daily life feel abrasive in his own mind. A tense conversation with his father-in-law perfectly apes the didactic flatness of an old argument recalled much later, and his first beachside meeting with Alison (Ruth Wilson) suggests a man whose life was a fantasy long before she came along. In Alison’s telling, she’s awash in old grief, sleepwalking through her fractured relationship and her waitress job, trying not to pick at the scabs of her loss, and intruded on by a man who’s fascinated with her and hovers somewhere between an oblivious nuisance and a predator. In Noah’s mind, she’s an ethereal small-town minx with a savior complex who’s just been waiting for him to arrive.
Both actors do a masterful job of establishing themselves (twice), while sowing the needs of necessary doubt; though Joshua Jackson and Maura Tierney have less to do, it’s a beautifully understated ensemble. Even the kids are perfectly cast, a cozy realism where they’re beloved but also slightly monstrous—no matter which story we’re in. But with the focus so far on Noah and Alison, the show sets up precisely what it needs to: The question of the degree to which these constructions are an admission, a remove, a shell, or a lie, is clearly going to be the series’ central concern. Even the initial scenes of domesticity introduce characters through the small, everyday conflicts that usually define us long before catalysts come along, the daily lives that force the construction of identity by any means necessary.
That linchpin, so expertly handled, means The Affair is both quietly unsettling and impossible to look away from. Every shot of an empty room is loaded with suspense even when the situation is mundane; the lack of any empirical truth immediately turns every frame into a low-stakes horror story. (Who is it? Nobody knows for sure, not even themselves; that’s the terror.) That said, there’s a sex scene in the first episode that deals directly with the chasm between the participants of a relationship and an observer. If handled well, it will be another challenging beat in a series full of them; if not, it could potentially stretch the he-said/she-said setup into deeply uncomfortable territory. Only later episodes will tell.
But this is a show that’s deliberately out to unsettle. Even the whodunit framework is, for now, a mystery. The voice-over makes clear early on that they’re being questioned—with occasional prompts from an outsider encouraging them to remember—but whatever catastrophe has led them to this point has yet to be revealed, giving the series a sinister undercurrent in which every unaddressed circumstance begins to feel like a harbinger of doom. The claustrophobia of relatability, that hinge point for so many characters on so many other shows, is a challenge here: recognizing yourself won’t last long. And couched in the falsely naturalistic approach of handheld cameras and seaside neutrals, the show is quite clear how easy it is to lose yourself, and why you’ll fight so hard for anything that offers answers. If it continues as it began, The Affair is poised to be truly amazing television: a breathless and enthralling story about the mutability of the past, the little cruelties of fickle memory, the larger cruelties of trying to determine truth, and the stories we tell about ourselves because we must.