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Review

A taut, gripping inquiry into 'The Affair'

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
In Showtime's 'The Affair,' he says, she says, and it appears a lot is at stake

Infidelity, a clever construct and a terrific cast are what sell Showtime's new drama "The Affair," which premieres Sunday and stars Ruth Wilson and Dominic West. What makes it intriguing, and potentially important, is memory.

Or as it's more commonly called, memoir, currently the great American art form. Fiction, nonfiction, books, film and television, all are currently awash in first person. The narrative "I" seems to have become the easiest way to reach an audience and focus the action with any narrative gaps easily filled in via voice-over.

But not every narrator is reliable, and even those with the best intentions are imperfect. Memory is not so much the truth as one person's imperfect version of it, sanded down and embellished by time, events, emotion and intent.

The nature and significance of those finishing touches, conscious or unconscious, seem to be what "The Affair" is exploring.

"Seem" because co-creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi are intentionally toying with the term "enigmatic," aided in their efforts by Showtime, which made just one episode available for review.

As the title suggests, the show chronicles the extramarital liaison between Alison (Wilson), a waitress in Montauk, N.Y., and Noah (West), a teacher/writer summering there with his family at the home of his wife's wealthy parents.

In the first half of the pilot, the origins of their meeting are relayed by Noah to someone who seems to be a police officer, anxious to know how "the whole mess" began. The second half is Alison's story. Subsequent episodes will include the viewpoints of Noah's wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), and Alison's husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson).

As with HBO's "In Treatment," on which Levi and Treem also worked, it's a terrific idea lyrically written and perfectly cast. Wilson, so lethally sexy as the smitten sociopath in "Luther," is just as mesmerizing here and possibly just as trustworthy.

West, both endlessly elastic and solid as an actor, likewise offers an infuriating but potentially forgivable portrait of a man spinning the best version of himself. Noah's telling of the day his family left for Montauk, where he met Alison for the first time, reveals both his narcissism and his insecurity.

In Noah's version, he is a loving father and loyal husband just trying to do his best in a difficult world. His wife is distracted, his kids are disruptive, his in-laws controlling. Of the day in question, he "remembers" a beautiful young woman hitting on him during an early morning swim, his father-in-law going out of his way to diminish Noah as a man and a writer, and Alison, the seemingly carefree and capable waitress at the lunch stop, first flirting with and then attempting to seduce him.

Alison, of course, tells another story. She is a woman burdened by tragedy and struggling with depression; her husband is sporadically attentive and irritated, her boss a sexist pig. She "remembers" another version of that lunchtime meeting. Key events unfold differently, and for contrasting reasons — Alice seems the pursued rather than the pursuer, Noah neither as reluctant nor as benign as he presents himself.

It's a smashing pilot, the performances limned by beach grass, dunes and the clear light of Montauk summer. Family scenes, in both Noah's and Ruth's memories, are tense and cacophonous, spouses loving but missing the point. Underlying the narrative is, of course, curiosity about what is prompting this investigation — what exactly is "the whole mess" that got started when Noah met Alison. Curiosity and, it must be said, concern.

"The Affair" is wildly ambitious, with pretensions toward art and insight that belie its criminal investigation trope. Never mind the difficulty of creating two believable yet suspect story lines; it's tough to sustain the small brushwork of detail and nuance without becoming coy or, even worse, losing sight of the larger purpose. Which, in television, is the creation of compelling characters and a story that sustains them.

Those who can, however, produce masterpieces.

Follow me on Twitter @marymacTV

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'The Affair'

Where: Showtime

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with an advisory for coarse language)

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