Thoughts on tonight's “The Affair” – and the early part of the season so far – coming up just as soon as I'm not much of a cuddler…
As I said in my initial review of the series, infidelity isn't a topic that I have ever found that dramatically compelling in and of itself, and even with this cast and with Sarah Treem running the series, my expectations weren't high. But the specificity of the two families, and the way the dueling POV structure made me question the truth of everything I was seeing, kept me engaged in the first episode, and also curious to see whether Treem and company could keep this going past the pilot.
What kept me engaged for the most part in episodes 2 and 3 was watching the ways the four different stories – Noah's POV, Alison's POV, and the versions each of them tell the cop – intersect and conflict with one another. We know, for instance, that there are things we see that the cop isn't privy to, like Noah and Alison's kiss by the gate to his father-in-law Bruce's private beach. We know that there are many minor discrepancies – clothing worn, time of day, change offered (or not) for a jam purchase – that can be ascribed largely to memory.
But then there are things that apply more to perspective, from the superficial (Alison inevitably looks more put together in Noah's account, while she's usually unkempt and/or washed out when we're getting her story; he remembers a sexy waitress, while she remembers herself as a mess just barely hanging on) to the substantial (each of them recalls the other as the aggressor in the relationship). And there are things where incidents in one story simply don't happen in the other, even though the two of them were allegedly together for it: Noah's version of Bruce's party omits him catching his daughter Whitney going upstairs with Cole's brother Scotty, as well as Helen adjusting Alison's bra strap, both of which we see when it's Alison's turn, while in her version of the town council incident, Noah never showed up at all, nor did they fool around by the water that night.
Because we know they aren't telling the cop everything – even though he seems awfully interested in the details of a years-old affair while investigating what may or may not have been a hit-and-run – we can't just chalk it up to one or both of them lying to us. This is how they are remembering things – or choosing to remember things – and memory and personal bias can create huge discrepancies(*) when revisiting such a fraught period of time.
(*) It's been interesting watching this series at the same time that “This American Life” rolled out its spin-off podcast “Serial,” in which reporter Sarah Koenig revisits a 15-year-old murder case, with much of it dealing with seemingly irreconcilable memories of the day in question – not only memories from today, but when people were questioned about it in the weeks and months immediately after the event.
So that's been fun to watch and keep track of, and episodes 2 and 3 also did a nice job of filling in our sense of Montauk from the perspective of both wealthy transplants like Bruce and more blue-collar natives like Cole. Neither Maura Tierney nor Joshua Jackson have gotten a ton to do so far, but both have been so strong that they have me itching to see things from Helen and Cole's perspective in later seasons, if we get them. (Treem told me that the show is sticking to Noah and Alison's POV for this first season, at least.)
Tonight's episode was the first to play with the pre-established format. Technically, we get half from Noah's perspective and half from Alison's, but the two halves occur consecutively rather than concurrently – Alison's half picks up only moments after Noah's ends – and they are together for virtually all of it. You can look at the division as still offering us a sense of the different views they had on the affair: in Noah's half, they shop and flirt, and get a hotel room together, while in Alison's half, they fight and panic and talk about death. The difference this time isn't in the facts, but in the mood.
Even with that split, though, it's about as straightforward and conventional a version of this stage of an affair as the show can offer, and one that leaves all the other characters behind as Noah and Alison take their trip to Block Island. And, frankly, when you take away the POV device and you take away the supporting cast(**), “The Affair” – or, at least, this episode of it – becomes much less interesting, and much more like the kind of thing I feared when I first heard about the project. Dominic West and Ruth Wilson are fine, fine actors, and there are some good character beats – and also some sketchy ones, like Alison letting Noah get this early glimpse of where she cuts herself – but on the whole, this one dragged.
(**) The interrogation at least stays, and it offers us its own conflicting version of events, albeit one we can chalk up to the crafty cop telling each subject what he or she wants to hear about the state of his own personal life.
We've seen a trend in recent years of cable dramas doing episodes that strip away everything other than their two leads for the whole hour – “Fly” on “Breaking Bad,” “The Suitcase” on “Mad Men,” “Fight” on “Masters of Sex” – but those have tended to come later in the run (even “Fight” was early in season 2), functioned as an alternative to a formula we knew pretty well, and/or involved characters opening up to each other in ways they hadn't in a while, if ever (“The Suitcase” is as powerful as it is becomes it comes at a low ebb in the Don/Peggy relationship). Here, the show is new, the relationship is new, and the characters have already had several opportunities for heart-to-hearts – even if the conversations have been different (or non-existent) depending on whose version we're seeing. Given the subject matter of the show, the first time these two go off alone like this and have sex is a big deal, so I understand the impulse to devote the whole hour to it, but the focus made me less interested in their relationship, rather than more.
I've already seen the fifth episode, which is back on Montauk and back to toggling between their experiences, and it was a relief after this one. Maybe down the road, the show can succeed without the multiple-POV device, but it couldn't tonight.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org