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.
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.
The 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?
The 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.
A television pilot can be a tricky thing. For the creators, they have 45 minutes to convince networks that their characters, story lines, and overall premise has enough meat to it to withstand 23 episodes and properly timed cliff hangers during sweeps week. But it’s only 45 minutes. What if your characters start out as clichés but will be shaped later? What if your premise starts out simple but will be complicated by the fifth episode or the sixth episode? Exposition has to be told in a pilot, but exposition typically is dull, it’s the paragraph of the story that’s brushed over on the second reading, it’s the aspect of a screenplay that if forced is completely off-putting. A pilot, for the most part, is all exposition, it’s all introduction, and it’s hard to know if the rest of the show is worth watching based on a measly 45 minutes.
So to judge one, to determine if a pilot is worth your time or money if you’re the head of a network, you have to not so much judge on the material presented, but on the potential for that material to flourish into a hit, or a dud, or a cult classic that will make money in merchandise and will have outlandishly costumed fans who’ll show up at Comic-Con, but will only rake in 3 million viewers a week.
But with TV, especially network TV, it’s not so much about the material anymore, it’s about the hype, it’s about that one twist that’ll get viewers watching.
NBC’s Smash, which premiers on February 6th, glitters with countless bells and whistles sure to guarantee a big initial audience, but does the glitter distract from the substance?
Following in Glee’s footsteps, Smash is also a musical television show, set to premiere after the Super Bowl like Glee did, with songs available on iTunes and an incredible marketing campaign. Not only is NBC making the pilot available online before its televised premiere, but there are also countless TV ads, spots, and billboards all over New York City. The show’s stars Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty both sung songs from the show at major televised New York events this season—McPhee sung at the Rockefeller tree lighting, and Hilty at Times Square on New Years Eve. Additionally, Spielberg is attached as Executive Producer along with a long list of additional successful theater producers with numerous accolades, Debra Messing is back on TV with another gay-partner-in-crime (this time, her composing partner, Tom Levitt—played by Christian Borle), and the show comes in to the television ring hoping to bank on the success of Glee with a lot less comedy and more sweeping, and artsy, camera movements.
As I was watching the pilot, I couldn’t help but compare to Glee’s pilot. Despite Glee’s fame, awards, and perfectly positioned place on today’s pop-culture spectrum, I didn’t love the pilot—I found the premise dull, and the characters flat, but nearly all that was forgotten in the last five minutes when Lea Michele and Cory Monteith belted out “Don’t Stop Believing” with her perfect pitch and his awkward dance moves. Suddenly, I found myself jumping on the Glee bandwagon—the music had convinced me that I loved the entire episode.
The same happened for me with Smash. I watched the first episode, interested in some of the story lines, pleased with the style, and most of the acting, but I was never sold on the idea of it. But then, in the last five minutes, when Katharine McPhee opens her mouth and starts in on the ballad, “Let Me Be Your Star” as she prepares for call backs to play Marilyn Monroe in the next Broadway hit, I found my eyes opening wider as I settled back into the comfort of my couch. The last five minutes were perfect: the transitions, the musicality of the camera, the choreography of the characters fluttering down stairs and into taxis and through Times Square, along with the contrasting vocal styles of the two women—Karen Cartright and Ivy Lynn (McPhee and Hilty, respectively)—fighting for the same role. The song is beautiful and catchy, with just enough Broadway flair to still be contemporary and sure to make millions in iTunes downloads. It has the feel of a Disney classic like “A Whole New World” or “Tale as Old as Time” without personified objects and Disney magic. Admittedly, I’ve watched the last five minutes of the pilot at least five times just for the closing number. And I recall doing the same with Glee’s pilot a few years ago.
But the point is that up until the number I wasn’t hooked. I’m still not hooked. I found that the characters were almost all clichés and the plot is entirely predictable. There’s the Midwestern girl (McPhee) living in the big city dreaming of success with parents who tell her that dreams get people nowhere. There’s her devoted boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey) who you know without a doubt is going to be thrown under the bus, unintentionally of course, when fame comes a-knockin’. There’s the gay theater producer (Borle), the entitled theater director (Jack Davenport) who happens to be a British snob (because, let’s face it, thanks to Simon Cowell, any critique sounds meaner when spoken with a British accent) who will let any star get ahead just as long as they’ll sleep with him, and then there’s the workaholic mother (Messing) who must balance family as well as career aspirations. You know that the two girls vying for the role of Marilyn will battle every episode until Miss Monroe is cast, that Messing’s marriage will crumble under career pressure, that the director will get laid and the girls who succumb will feel bad about it when it doesn’t get them what they want, and that harsh lessons about the equally harsh world of Broadway will be learned. At the same time, we know that all that talent, hoopla, and struggles guarantee that in the end dreams will come true—at least for one of the girls.
So what about episode two? Is it worth watching simply because the glitter of the last five minutes got caught in my eyes and made me forget that I wasn’t really on board until the end? What does one more episode hurt? Although I’ve grown tired of Glee in general and its ubiquitous story lines about Sue Sylvester sabotaging Glee Club and one member quitting only to come back, I am still a fan of the episode that followed the pilot. The characters were allowed to be more complex, the writing was more nuanced, and the musical numbers were just as captivating. Maybe Smash will follow in Glee’s footsteps in this way as well, and maybe the second episode will be the one that will win me over, making the first closing musical number in the pilot simply the escalator that got me to episode two. I can commit 45 more minutes, and a several streaming commercials, in order to find out if the sparkle can last, but if the characters don’t grow beyond their clichéd shells, and the plot doesn’t begin to throw in some surprises, the show’s glitter won’t sparkle for too long.