The Affair was created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, whose first foray into cable television outside of his native Israel came with HBO’s In Treatment back in 2008. The Affair as a mystery retrospective tackles a subject for one season that shows like Mad Men feature a dozen of per season, which poses certain challenges. Keeping a show fresh while still focusing on one narrow period time in history is difficult, and has caused the show to orient itself around developing theme and tone over plot-driven action.
If this characterization is triggering any synapses, it might be because The Affair is very similar to HBO’s successful mystery True Detective. Right down to a snooty father-in-law with a huge house by the water, these shows have a lot in common. Both share similar strengths like strong leading actors and a focus on the uncommonly unsettling tone caused by revisiting old wounds during police questioning. At the same time, The Affair shares some of True Detective‘s numerous faults such as frequent cornball dialogue and melodramatic scenarios that act as filler between meaty scenes the showrunners clearly want to focus on.
Two British actors, Dominic West – making his premium cable return after The Wire – and Luther‘s Ruth Wilson, play Noah Solloway and Alison Lockhart respectively. The pilot episode is split into two parts with both Noah and Alison giving their own perspective on how the affair went down from a couple years in the future. We follow Noah, his wife Helen (Maura Tierney) and their four bratty kids on summer vacation from New York City to Montauk on Long Island. Early on in the journey, there are a couple action-packed moments that are surprising and somewhat engaging, but between those setpieces there is little grab hold of.
These setpieces are probably supposed to be examples of how difficult Noah’s life can be as a family man, and with some well-chosen bits of voice-over narration, they succeed; but in between those moments, the dialogue is hackneyed and the plot sluggish. Furthermore, only half of the show’s six sex scenes seem necessary, while the others seem added in partially as some sort of vaguely stimulating scene to hold over the audience to the next big reveal.
Noah’s first half reads much like the Marilyn Monroe classic The Seven Year Itch where the main character imagines himself as a bona fide ladies man. Noah impressing Alison at the diner where she works, running into her at a bonfire and admiring her outdoor shower (“I love outdoor showers”) play out distinctly different from Alison’s telling in the second half. The way the show displays the lens through which Alison and Noah see the events surrounding the affair are well executed and feel neither hyperbolic nor overdone by the end of the episode.
Noah’s telling of the story is much more affair focused, but Alison’s explores her relationship with her boyfriend Cole (Joshua Jackson) and some skeletons from her past. Sometimes this exploration revisits some tired tropes and dialogue (“I liked this one spot by the lighthouse because the waves out there seemed even angrier than I was”) but often the shared glances between Alison and Noah work in their favor.
The actual affair itself does not take place during this pilot, and there is a more prominent cliffhanger at the end, but still the show struggles to maintain its hold on the audience. High-concept stories definitely have their place on television, especially premium cable, but this show seems to have forgotten that it also needs to be entertaining. Maybe the big reveal next episode will develop upon the strengths of this pilot, but differentiating another show about an upper middle class, white family from New York who struggle with relationship drama will be difficult without further attention to an actual plot.