You should know where you stand with a series called The Affair, which hits Sky Atlantic tonight, seven months after airing on Showtime in the US to a chorus of rave reviews. It’s a perfectly self-explanatory, unambiguous title.
Except the thing is, you don’t know where you stand. Not at all. You don’t know where the two principal characters stand either, and that’s the real draw of tonight’s utterly compelling double-length opener.
One or the other of them is an unreliable narrator, telling their own twisted, contradictory version of the same story. Or perhaps both of them are equally unreliable and the real truth lies somewhere between or beyond the conflicting accounts. Nothing can be taken for granted.
The Affair tells of a disastrous tryst between two married people, Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson), in a picturesque seaside town one summer. It soon becomes apparent that the police became involved somewhere along the line, and that Noah and Alison are relating their side of events separately to the same detective.
Noah, a public school teacher, appears to have it all. He’s happily married to the lovely Helen (ER’s Maura Tierney) and they have four bright and convincingly unruly children. They live in a magnificent brownstone in New York City and Noah has just had his first novel published. He’s still attractive to other women too, as we see when, to his quiet delight, a singleton hits on him at a swimming pool.
Life is good. And yet, he’s aware of the faint hum of middle-aged discontent and disappointment; the slight scent of failure. The brownstone, for instance, was bought with money borrowed from his hated father-in-law Bruce (John Doman), a rich and successful novelist, as well as a first-class condescending arsehole, with whom Noah and family have to spend three months in Long Island.
So we’re not surprised when restless Noah has stalk-eyes for Alison, a gorgeous, sexy, flirtatious waitress he encounters at a lobster restaurant — or when, after they accidentally meet again later that night, she practically seduces him and he’s at the point of falling head over heels into temptation.
But the Alison we meet through her own eyes is different: still beautiful, but addled and unkempt and broken with grief for her dead son. Her marriage to Cole (Joshua Jackson from Fringe) is almost broken as well. He’s doing his best to come through their loss; she can’t, turning up every day to read Peter Pan (tellingly the story of the boy who never grew up) aloud by their child’s grave. In Alison’s version, Noah is the one who made the first move, positively aggressively.
West and Watson, who won a Golden Globe for her performance, are magnificent. They practically change shape to become different characters between the two accounts — which I suppose reflects real life. The way we see ourselves is not always the way others see us.
It’s this delicious tang of doubt about what we should believe, if indeed we should believe any of it, that makes The Affair so magnetically watchable.
It’s proper grown-up drama, this, and as befits proper grown-up drama, it comes with proper grown-up sex — and I don’t mean the waxed and wishful fodder for adolescent fantasies that you find in Game of Thrones.
The sex scenes between West and Tierney are more gentle than raunchy, an intimately convincing portrayal of a couple who’ve been together a long time and know one another well — maybe too long and too well.
Real affairs can fizzle out abruptly, and so might this one. But so far it’s superb.
The Affair, Sky Atlantic, 9pm