Noah and Helen live in New York city with their four children, he’s a high school English teacher who’s just published his first novel. They travel to Long Island to spend the summer with Helen’s rich parents who look down on Noah and never let him forget how much they are providing for his family.
Alison and Cole live on the beach, she’s a waitress and he runs the family ranch and they’re struggling; struggling with money, with grief, with family and with any form of connection.
Alison serves Noah and his family in a diner and there’s an instant connection that quickly turns into the eponymous Affair. A ‘simple’ summer fling quickly grows into something that both makes and destroys all it touches.
The ‘twist’ The Affair uses is that each episode is told half from Alison’s point of view and half from Noah’s. Sometimes it just fills in the gaps of what happens in the other’s life, but sometimes you actually see the same scene told with very different perspectives and recollections. Events and characters are minutely different – who initiated what, were words said in anger or jest, were events coincidence or construction.
It’s in the simplicity of the set up and the power of the storytelling trick that the real strength of this series lies. It allows the writers and actors to look at the complexity of human emotions and the way that people connect and feel. There are all sorts of subjects that come up and are elegantly explored without pretending there are right answers to any of it. There’s no implication that the truth is either Noah’s version or Alison’s version, but also no judgement that they remember things differently. The performances from the central four actors are wonderful, particularly the subtleties of the different points of view.
What lets the show down rather is the mystery plot sort of shoved over the top. We see both Alison and Noah being interviewed by a detective at some undetermined point in the future about a crime that’s painfully gradually revealed over the ten episode first season. It felt as if someone chickened out of just telling a story about people and thought the audience would need some kind of csi subplot just to keep their attention. Instead of sucking me in though, it did entirely the opposite, making me roll my eyes in irritation every time we jumped to an interview room and cryptic clues were drip fed out. It was just frustrating.
The other big frustration was the end of the season. I’m a bit late writing this review because I was actually waiting for the next episode to turn up and was half anticipating that it would be a one-season mini-series rather than an ongoing series. It felt rather like a cliffhanger was manufactured and I’m not sure that the next season isn’t going to be just dragging the story out longer than necessary. Those sorts of manipulative tricks just didn’t feel in keeping with the elegance of the rest of the writing.
Still, despite those misgivings, I still think it’s well worth watching. It’s such a simple setup, but it’s extremely well told and evolves into a fascinating story with some really impressive performances. Whether season 2 will sustain that, I’m not so sure, but lets see.