Waves move, flickering, on a black backdrop as Fiona Apple sings: “I was screaming, into the canyon, at the moment, of my death”. It’s a suitably dark, brooding title sequence to The Affair, Sky Atlantic’s recent import from Showtime, starring English actors Dominic West (best known as Jimmy McNulty in The Wire) and Ruth Wilson.
It follows the rocky romances between Noah Solloway (West), his paramour Alison Lockhart (Wilson) and their spouses, and a possibly connected murder, as Noah, his wife and four kids spend the summer with Noah’s little-loved in-laws in Montauk, the remote eastern-most point of Long Island. So far, so ‘rom-com’ terrain. But it rises above Jennifer Aniston-movie fare for various reasons.
Firstly, the intelligence of the script. The story is told by the two protagonists as they are interrogated by a policeman for a murder in Montauk – the details of which are teasingly dripfed to the audience. First in each episode (most episodes anyway) you are told ‘Noah’s story’, then ‘Alison’s story’, which makes for a fascinating character study of the nuances of seduction; how the same event can be remembered so differently by both parties. Instead of bashing you over the head with the message, it gives enough space for the viewer to ruminate on the motives and morality of the characters’ actions – and how that might affect the crime being investigated (which is still unresolved, with a second season coming). Among the many, many arguments, I can’t remember one where there was an obvious winner. This is life and love not in black and white, but in all its shades of grey (emotionally speaking, not sexually a la Christian Grey – though the sex scenes are fairly steamy).
Alison and her husband Cole still, a few years on, have the lingering loss of their only child Gabriel hanging over their marriage like a dark cloud, particularly because Alison is grappling with the guilt of not taking him to the doctors before he died of secondary drowning aged four. And Noah is looking for the life he thinks he missed out on by marrying early; the idealistic, freewheeling vision he has of the life of a writer; the chance to be who wants to be instead of who he is or feels he’s supposed to be. In other hands, Noah’s action could smack of ‘mid-life crisis, sleazy fling’, but Dominic West performs the role with so much skill you have some sympathy for Noah, despite months of living a lie. (That said, Noah’s pursual of the affair could have been made more believable and sympathetic – maybe just make all his kids kind of brats rather than just Whitney (arguably), or make his wife a bit of a bitch).
Just as important to the show is Montauk, its small, close-knit, everyone-knows-everyone feel integral to the plot, and the Atlantic sea of course offering much scope for attractive visual metaphor for all manner of plot issues. It is portrayed as a place wrestling with the twin identities of down-to-earth, everyone-knows-everyone fishing community and wealthy playground for the “summer people” (the heart of the infamous ‘Hamptons’ area, where rich New Yorkers escape the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple, is around 20 miles down the road).
So get in on The Affair. That is, unless you’re in an unstable marriage – in which case, it’s so compelling and comprehensive in its examination of marriage breakdown, you could start questioning and doubting things a bit too much…