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The Lies Our Memory Tells: A Review of “The Affair”

Grade: A

Showtime’s newest drama, The Affair premiered last night with a cast of deeply-complex characters and a riveting new format. The pilot episode tells the tale of Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson) as they meet for the first time and, as the show’s title gives away, will soon become entangled in a complicated love affair. The two meet when Noah, along with his wife and four children, head to Montauk for the summer where they’ll be staying with Noah’s well-off and forever-pompous Father-in-Law (John Doman). Stopping first for a bite to eat after just arriving in town, Alison is the waitress at the local diner blessed with the task of taking their order.

Affair1 The story starts off from Noah’s perspective. He’s recounting events to a man who is questioning him. We’re not sure who the man is, but it seems like a police interrogation and we get the feeling that a lot of time has passed. We know not what crime he’s being questioned for. As Noah recounts events we watch him interact with his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), in a seemingly happy marriage, battle with his children of all differing ages and angst-levels, and try his hardest to calmly and coolly get his family all packed up and off to their grandfather’s.

Noah’s family is nothing if not chaotic. As if his son orchestrating a pretend suicide attempt before they leave the house, and his eldest daughter’s refusal to eat anything over 10 calories isn’t enough, the family-drama culminates at the diner when his youngest daughter begins to choke on a marble at the table as they place their breakfast orders. Amidst panic from the family and with Alison watching on in fear, Noah is able to beat on his daughter’s back and dislodge the item she was choking on.

The event has clearly traumatized Alison. Noah takes notice and does his best to comfort her and assure her his daughter is fine and there’s nothing to be upset about. But their interaction doesn’t stop here. Later, he runs into her again on the beach. She is flirtatious with him and asks him to walk her home where they take a look at her outdoor shower. There, Alison asks him if he’d like to try it out. When he declines and insists he should be getting home, she undresses in front of him and climbs in for a shower of her own. A bit rattled, he avoids the situation and heads for home, but not before witnessing Alison and a man who turns out to be her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson), fighting with her in the driveway vehemently, violently dropping his pants, and forcibly bending her over the hood of his car.

Episode 101The screen goes black, and part two begins—Alison’s story. We start off at the morning of the same day. Immediately, the tone is much more somber and Alison seems considerably more damaged than she did in Noah’s recounting of events. Cole, on the other hand, is not the menacing man Noah has led us to believe either. He’s troubled by something, surely, but eager to please his wife which turns out to be a difficult task. We get the feeling that his attempts to win her over have been falling flat for quite some time. We soon learn that they lost a child recently and that today would’ve been the little boy’s birthday.

Alison, too, is recounting the events to some sort of detective and we can tell that much time has passed. Right away, as soon as Noah enters her story, we as viewers realize that their memories differ in complex ways. As an onlooker, this subtle reveal is riveting to watch. The table-chaos when Noah’s family places their order at the restaurant is different than it was in Noah’s recounting of events. When Noah’s daughter starts choking, it’s not Noah who heroically saves her, but Alison who beats her and dislodges the item she’s choking on. Noah, for the most part, idly stands by as Alison takes charge. The two continue to interact because Noah comes back to Alison again and again as a way to thank her for saving his daughter’s life. And later, on the beach, it’s Noah who is coming on to Alison. It’s Noah who asks to walk her home. It’s Noah who asks to see her outdoor shower, and it’s Noah who asks to try it out. Alison is taken aback by his behavior. Noah even goes so far as to kiss her on the cheek in a way that upsets Alison and she tells him to leave. The shirt he is wearing is different than in Noah’s retelling. The dress she remembers wearing is less revealing than he recalls. And the sex against the car that Noah witnesses between Cole and Alison is still violent, yes, but Alison asked for it be that way, preferred it that way, and the event followed an intimate conversation between Alison and Cole about the pain associated with the loss of their child.

Both Noah and Alison recall events in strikingly different ways. Who is right? How does that change things?

affair2The show is able to offer an enticing study on memory and the impermanence of our recall. It’s a study on the lies we unintentionally tell and how remembering wrong, even inadvertently, can forever change the tenor of events. Still, the ways in which we twist things in our minds often make sense. Of course Noah would perceive Cole as this awful, menacing, rapist of a husband. He’s going to have an affair with this man’s wife—anything to make that act seem better, to make it seem as if someone is benefiting in the seemingly selfish act is something he’d cling to. And of course Alison would remember herself as being hesitant to his coming-on, unwelcome even. She’d want to believe that it wasn’t her choice to start an affair, that she wasn’t looking for that. She wants to believe her innocence so she remembers it that way. Noah heroically recalls saving his daughter and defending his family—the ultimate protector. He’d like to think of himself as the one keeping everything together, as someone they’re dependent on, especially considering we know he’s certainly disrupted his family’s life with the affair he chose to have. By hearing both sides of the same story, the characters immediately become more complex and we learn more in the short one-hour we’re given than we would otherwise. It’s a refreshing and brilliant way to break down a character’s motivations, fears, and hesitations and the show’s creators, Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, deserve a bevy of kudos for coming up with it.

This idea goes even beyond the characters on the screen. The defectiveness of memory is universal and it’s something the show forces us to acknowledge. Sometimes our memories fail. Do we admit our shortcomings ever? Of course, but we tell ourselves little unintentional lies. This idea is a fascinating concept in the context of something as complex and “he said/she said” as an affair. It’s a perfect move that the writers have made. There’s a police interrogation. Blame for some nameless crime is certainly being pointed somewhere. What better way to create intrigue in the audience than to make us wonder who of our narrators we can trust? Whose memory is most accurate? I’m curious to see what format the show will continue to follow. Will there continue to be such discord between sides of the story, or will Noah and Alison gradually find common ground as their lives become more entangled? Will their memories become “truer” as we get further in time and closer to the time of the interrogation? Will each episode be told in two parts like this or was this just the way to get the ball rolling? Can the showrunners keep it up without the format becoming cumbersome? And, better yet, what else is there left to reveal? Why are the police in the mix? Who is the father of the kid Alison tells the detective she must pick up? And what happens to all the other players involved?

A long list of lingering questions is a good sign of a successful pilot episode. They certainly have me hooked.

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