The unreliable narrator is a common device on TV, fueling works ranging from “True Detective” to “How I Met Your Mother.” But what if you have two unreliable narrators recounting the same story?
That’s the question at the heart of “The Affair.” In Sunday’s (Oct. 12) premiere, we see two versions of the beginnings of an extramarital affair between Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), one from his perspective and one from hers. As with “True Detective,” Alison and Noah are each recounting the story at a police station at some point in the future, although why the cops would be interested is not at all clear yet.
Watching two people blow up their marriages doesn’t on its face seem like the most engaging way to spend an hour. But co-creators and former “In Treatment” collaborators Sarah Treem (who wrote the premiere) and Hagai Levi (who conceived the story with her) have put together a very compelling show that handles what could be a depressing subject in a very sympathetic way. At the outset, anyway, there are no obvious good or bad guys, just four adults trying very hard, not always successfully, to live good lives.
The show does establish a few not-in-dispute facts on which to build its story: Noah Solloway is a public-school teacher who’s recently published a novel, to less than great reviews. He’s married to Helen (Maura Tierney), and they’re taking their four kids to spend the summer at the Hamptons estate her parents own. (Noah’s father-in-law is played by fellow “Wire” alum John Doman, and the characters’ relationship here is marked by the same mutual contempt as the one between McNulty and Rawls.)
They meet when the Solloways stop for lunch at the seafood shack where Alison works as a waitress, then run into each other again that night when he goes for a walk on the beach. He walks her home and witnesses a confrontation between Alison and her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson).
After that, though? Pretty much everything is up for debate. The premiere spends its first half telling Noah’s version story and its second half telling Alison’s*, and they differ on things both big — who was more forward when they met on the beach, for instance — and small, like where Noah’s sons were sitting in the booth at the restaurant.
(*Treem has said in interviews that “The Affair” will shift points of view in future episodes as well, but not necessarily in such a down-the-middle way.)
You can chalk their diverging stories up to hazy memories or the two of them putting themselves in the best light while talking to the police, but it makes for a fascinating viewing experience. We don’t yet know where the truth falls, but it sure as heck makes you want to tune in for episode 2.
Such a device could also get old as scenes play out multiple times, but the performances by all four principals hold the show together remarkably well. West and Wilson do the heavy lifting in the premiere, and watching them play the nuances in each version of the story is one of the great treats of this early season.
Tierney and Jackson have less to do at first, but they do it well. Tierney is vibrant and funny, and her work with West suggests that Noah and Helen have a lived-in, occasionally prickly but ultimately pretty solid partnership, which only serves to deepen the questions about Noah being unfaithful. Jackson’s Cole is rougher around the edges than audiences are used to seeing him play, but the slow burn he’s required to play here suits him well.
Treem and Levi have created what is easily the season’s most intriguing mystery. Neither Noah nor Alison comes off as a bad person in the early going, yet both the show’s title and its framing device imply something must have gone wrong along the way. The assured start for the series promises much more to come.
“The Affair” premieres at 10 p.m. ET/PT Sunday on Showtime.