The Affair misfires with overly familiar structure

At first inspection, Showtime’s new show The Affair has a plenty interesting concept. It looks at the story of an affair from both the point of view of the man, Noah (Dominic West) and the woman, Alison (Ruth Wilson). In the pilot, the first half hour showed the viewers a narrative from the point of view of Noah. The second half hour gave us the same side of the story from Alison’s point of view. The conceit is interesting enough, as it looks at the different memories of the same situations in the minds of different people. It is a bit bizarre, however, to be talking about The Affair’s multiple-POV structure so soon after the release of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.

An Affair to remember · Dominic West and Ruth Wilson both take on the challenge of playing two distinct versions of the same character: As their characters percieve themselves and as they each percieve each other. - Photo courtesy of Showtime

An Affair to remember · Dominic West and Ruth Wilson both take on the challenge of playing two distinct versions of the same character: As their characters percieve themselves and as they each percieve each other. – Photo courtesy of Showtime

The similarities with Rigby are a bit uncanny, even beyond telling the same story two different times from two different points of view in Rashomon-like fashion. Both stories deal with the end of love and strangely both have at least one character dealing with the death of a child. Rigby premiered in September 2013, Affair was picked up in January 2014, so the parallels between the two are worrisome at the very least. Despite this major sticking point, the show does have some kernels of promise — it might offer a very interesting look at the unpredictability of human memory differently enough from Rigby to be valuable in its own right, despite being destined to be intertwined with it just as in other recent examples of pieces about very similar subject matter being released very close to each other like The Illusionist with The Prestige or Mirror, Mirror was with Snow White and the Huntsman.

The strength of Rigby lies in the moments where the two protagonists are apart, providing the viewer a wealth of context to understand their motivations. In The Affair, the focus is much more on the overlapping moments. The differences between what the characters remember about the blossoming affair are significant, and The Affair differs greatly from Rigby in the degree to which the memories vary. Where in Rigby the differences are very subtle, in The Affair the differences are drastic. These are so different that they strain belief that two people could remember the same events in such categorically different ways. These events, however, are being told in a police interrogation (for as yet unrevealed reasons) and there are clues that this interrogation is going on a significant amount of years after the fact. So, it could be argued that a distinction between Rigby and Affair is that Affair deals with the effects of time on memory as opposed to just the effects that differences in perspective alone may have on perception. The True Detective-style future-interrogation plot device also mitigates the strain on suspension of disbelief created by drastic differences between Noah’s and Alison’s memories.

West and Wilson are well cast in their roles and both seem up to the task of playing both versions of their characters, with one perceived through their own eyes and the one seen through the eyes of their counterpart. Whereas Noah is a caring father being pursued by the light-hearted Alison in his eyes, through hers we see the very sexually aggressive Noah chasing the emotionally scarred Alison. Both West and Wilson play these vastly different personalities with enough skill to make the viewer still believe they are the same character, despite the difference. They do this while dealing with less-than-stellar dialogue. Conversation tends to be overly complex, sapping its naturalism.

In the beginning of the first episode, when Noah is talking to his family, firing off cynical witticisms to his 6-year-old son, the viewer quickly gets engulfed in a surprising darkness. Over the course of the hour, depending on who is perceiving the action, the viewer is treated to a 12-year-old faking a suicide, a different character openly contemplating suicide, a husband raping his wife and the aforementioned character dealing with the loss of a young son. The hits just keep on coming. The many intrusions of darkness into the storyline threaten to overshadow the titular affair. So much so that, combined with the unexplained police interrogation at the end, it makes one wonder just how dark the show will go before its 10-episode run is up.

There is a lot going on in The Affair right off the bat. At times, it is sufficient to distract from the many similarities to The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. But, overall, this is not the case. The two works are not the same, but the similarities are enough to cast a shadow over the entire, pardon the pun, affair. Under that shadow lies the makings of a good show, but whether it comes together remains to be seen.