In an empty office space with sweeping views of midtown Manhattan, Dominic West and Maura Tierney are seated on a couch looking, well, miserable.
“I could have had anyone I wanted when I was young ... I chose you,” says Tierney in character as Helen, half of a seemingly perfect Brooklyn couple whose marriage is torn asunder by infidelity in the new Showtime drama “The Affair.”
She may sound harsh, but her husband, Noah, played by West, has probably earned the tongue-lashing: The seemingly loyal father of four has had an affair with Alison (played by Ruth Wilson), a married waitress from Montauk, the seaside town where Helen’s wealthy family owns a home. The couple are now in therapy trying to heal the rift, but it’s a struggle — in part because not even Noah really understands what drove him to cheat.
“I’ve been going over and over this in my mind for three months now,” he says. “Why did I do it? What was I thinking?”
These questions are at the heart of “The Affair,” a series as interested in sex and romance as the elusiveness of memory and self-understanding. Created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, who collaborated on HBO’s similarly themed “In Treatment,” the drama puts a fresh postmodern twist on infidelity, a subject that’s become a virtual prerequisite of any series aspiring to the status of Quality Television.
Using the framing device of a criminal investigation, “The Affair” tells the story of Noah and Alison’s relationship in flashbacks from each of their perspectives. In a kind of romantic version of “Rashomon,” their recollections often diverge wildly, leaving the viewer to interpret discrepancies both fleeting (the color of a shirt, for example) and more significant (who made the first move).
“We wanted to do something from the idea that we both had that truth was very subjective, that two people can be in the same relationship for years and can have radically different impressions of it,” says Treem by telephone. “As writers, we were really fascinated by this possibility.”
She and Levi decided that the protagonists would not be serial philanderers looking for ways out of their marriages but instead committed spouses who anguish over their attraction to each other.
As West says on set during a break between takes, “Noah is the last guy who would have an affair.” The actor has played many cheaters, including Jimmy McNulty in the acclaimed HBO series “The Wire” and Richard Burton in the BBC America biopic “Burton & Taylor,” but Noah is, as his wife notes bitterly, the man she picked specifically for his reliability.
On the surface, his life with Helen seems almost nauseatingly content. He’s a school teacher and aspiring novelist, she runs a fair-trade shop, and they live with their kids in an enviable brownstone. But there are tensions below the facade of bourgeois bliss, mainly because their lifestyle is financed by Helen’s father, a bestselling author of mass-market fiction.
“I can’t afford the house, I can’t afford to clothe the kids, I don’t pay for their schooling, and so I’m fairly emasculated by her wealth,” West explains.
In contrast, Alison is in a more clearly vulnerable state when we meet her. Her marriage to Cole (Joshua Jackson) is haunted by a personal trauma revealed in the pilot episode, but like Noah she is not someone who naturally chafes at the confines of monogamy.
“Initially it’s sort of love at first sight, or I suppose chemistry at first sight,” Wilson says of her character’s first encounter with Noah. “But as you trace through the series you realize that both of them are in a place where they’re more open to that chemistry. Part of the debate is, what is love? Does it happen instantly, or is it something that is borne out of a time and place and is specific to those individuals in that place and time?”
It’s not a coincidence that the spark between Noah and Alison is lit in Montauk. As Treem notes, “When people begin affairs, they a lot of the times do them on vacation; there’s this opportunity to try on a different identity. There’s also a finality to the experience — you can always leave.” The setting, a once-sleepy beach town on the eastern tip of Long Island that’s increasingly overrun by affluent and trendy New Yorkers, also helps play up the class issues rippling through “The Affair.”
Naturally, physical intimacy is an integral part of the series, but cast and creators say they have gone to great lengths to avoid the “sexplication” so commonplace on pay cable.
“It’s tricky because there’s always the nagging suspicion that it’s gratuitous,” West says regarding the show’s sex scenes, which, he confesses, make him and Wilson “very nervous.” Extensive conversations and rehearsals have helped mitigate the discomfort, but only so much. “It’s difficult to pretend to have sex in front of lots of people.”
“The show’s so intimate that it’s scary sometimes,” says executive producer Jeffrey Reiner, also a director on several of the season’s 10 episodes. “I’ve done big action sequences, I’ve blown up bridges and done huge football games, but there’s really nothing more challenging than doing a sex scene. ... It’s not like, ‘OK, pretend like you’re having sex. Cut.’”
Producers enlisted Esther Perel, a psychologist and author who has written extensively about marriage and sexuality, as a consultant on the series. One of her principal lessons — that, as Treem paraphrases, “infidelity is a lot more about who you are than about the person you’re with” — has been a guiding maxim in the writers’ room.
Perhaps not surprisingly given its subject matter, “The Affair” has prompted a great deal of reflection by the cast and crew — and apparently everyone they encounter.
“When you talk about the show, everybody is an expert,” Tierney says, “because everybody has had an affair or had someone cheat on them, so everyone really throws their two cents in, which is both funny and kind of annoying.”
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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)