Showtime’s “The Affair,” despite its titular adultery and steamy sex, may be one of the most elegantly chilly series currently on the air. Season 1 found writer Noah (Dominic West) and waitress Allison (Ruth Wilson) falling in love behind their respective spouses’ backs over the course of a summer in Montauk. Each episode cut back and forth from his and her perspectives, replete with telling differences–while a third, present-day narrative found them both recounting their stories to a suspicious police officer investigating a hit and run.
Now Season 2 adds the voices of the jilted spouses to the mix, no doubt in part because co-creator and executive producer Sarah Treem recognized while filming the first season that they had a secret weapon in the form of Maura Tierney as Noah’s wife, Helen. Tierney and Joshua Jackson, as Allison’s ex-husband Cole, now bring their perspectives to episodes, and the quartet prove not only the fallibility of memory but how isolated people can feel even in a relationship.
Of the first two episodes Showtime has provided critics for review, the most telling moments in the four parts are those when Noah, Allison, Helen, and Cole are alone. There’s Helen staring at the gray space on her bedroom wall where a painting hung until Noah moved out with it; here’s former nurse Allison trying to fill an empty day with mindless activity. What Treem–who wrote both episodes–accomplishes is nothing short of miraculous: In what amounts to a double exposure, Allison and Helen’s loneliness propels the story forward while also providing a glimpse into how they view themselves. Helen sees herself as too nice to defend herself, even when two mothers are nastily gossiping about the failure of her marriage, and her moment alone is awash in regret and restraint. (A far cry from the icy virago who sits across the table in Noah’s remembrance of their mediation.) And Allison’s new status in life is that of a guest of a guest, staying on the grounds of a country estate in the Hudson Valley because Noah accepted an offer to finish his book there.
As in the first season, the most thrilling parts of each episode are the glimpses into the present day, when the characters are seen in the third person. If Noah’s version of Allison is of a domesticated sex goddess and her version of herself is a beatific saint struggling to make the right choices, the woman who arrives to see Noah at the Suffolk County courthouse is a far cry from either. A large part of the conflicting storylines’ success comes courtesy of the cast, all of who find the common thread to vastly different interpretations of their characters. (This was particularly true last season, when Tierney and Jackson slayed it week after week as alternately saintly and distant without caricaturing either.) In Noah’s memory, he’s a cheerful, good-natured man who spares Allison the details of a bad day; in her version, Noah comes home in a sulk and immediately unloads the frustrations of his day on her. We can see both men at any given moment in West’s performance; which we choose to believe in more is entirely dependent on us.
Ultimately Noah and Allison know as little about one another–or even about themselves–as we do. Each has his and her own version of the truth, but “The Affair” makes clear that the truth is a shifting, subjective thing, even as it slowly teases that, at its core, it is a murder mystery. That we never really know the people whom we love is a powerful, popular theme that fits snugly into the thriller and horror genres (think of “Rosemary’s Baby” and all those early ’90s erotic thrillers) but to see it rendered so artfully and crisply and unsentimentally as a weekly drama is to understand why we are so often informed that we live in a golden age of TV.
Season 2 of “The Affair” premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime
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