When Showtime’s The Affair premieres tonight, much will rightly be written about its experimental approach to structure, form and point of view. In its first episode, which is actually already available online, the show dives into a tale of temptation and (potential) infidelity that unfolds like a dream or a languid summer day, its serenity punctured every so often by moments of unsettling tension.
It’s not just the unhurried pacing or the tone, calibrated to a tricky but riveting balance between meditative and disquieting, that reminded me of The Leftovers, another premium cable show that debuted this year. It’s the way they both bury deep into their characters’ psyches, lingering in the most secretive, troubled spaces and allowing that darkness to seep out and color the world around them. Though the similarities might not continue beyond The Affair’s first episode, from what I’ve seen, both shows seem intent on wrenching their characters out of their sedate, comfortable lives and hurtling them toward an undefined yet inevitable doom.
The Leftover’s apocalypse is a literal one. Thrown into a collective existential crisis after the sudden, random disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population, the residents of a suburban New York town must grapple with broken families, the rise of strange cults as old belief systems are shattered and new ones take hold, and the fact that, despite all common sense and the desires of many, life insists on moving on almost as if nothing had ever happened. By contrast, the concerns of The Affair are much more down-to-earth and mundane. Noah Solloway (played by the reliably good Dominic West) lives in a spacious New York City brownstone courtesy of his snobby but filthy rich father-in-law, is contentedly married (his wife is played by Maura Tierney, so you know she’s lovely) with four children, and has recently published his first book while still enjoying his day job as a public school teacher. As Noah himself admits, it’s an idyllic existence, one so often promised to everyone by politicians, Hollywood and advertisers but that few people could ever hope to achieve. Yet, all it takes is one chance encounter with a pretty waitress named Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson, a revelation) for him to consider throwing it all away. This premise has been done countless times before, and without a talented and, let’s be honest, attractive cast and such ambitious writing and direction, the prospect of spending every week watching privileged people being unhappy with their privilege would’ve sounded insufferable (counterargument: Mad Men).