Marital infidelity and sexual adventurism, either in concert or separately, are themes more common to the programming on cable networks than network television – at least, insofar as fulfillment of such behavior is manifested in graphic detail.
Showtime, the cable channel that is linked by the same corporate ownership to the CBS Television network, has often explored the boundaries of these themes.
But David Duchovny’s Hank Moody on “Californication,” whose libido seems to have no limits, is no longer alone as a married (or quasi-married) man hooked on gratification.
In a show with the unsubtle title of “The Affair,” Dominic West’s Noah Solloway, a New York City public school teacher and aspiring novelist, who is living way beyond the means of a government worker, is spending the summer at his wealthy in-laws’ oceanfront estate in Montauk, the far end of Long Island’s exclusive Hamptons community.
Noah would have you believe that he is happily married to Helen (Maura Tierney), his college sweetheart, and the mother of their four children.
That’s what he is saying in the first episode, and it sounds plausible as there is little to indicate lingering resentment or dissatisfaction with his faithful spouse.
Families can be complicated. The four kids squabble. Teenage daughter Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles), a rebellious handful, is pushing the boundaries with provocative dress and insisting on ordering exotic coffee drinks.
And yet, it is the very youngest child that seems like an unlikely catalyst for what unfolds.
At a diner in the seaside resort town of Montauk, the Solloway family struggles through ordering their meal while being attended to by waitress Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson).
The youngest child chokes on a food item, and what ensues is a focal point of the initial he-said, she-said storytelling.
Well, if you haven’t guessed yet, Noah finds himself attracted to Alison, or is it the other way around?
The provocative, seductive drama of “The Affair” is told separately from the male and female perspectives, using the distinct memory biases of Noah and Alison to both misdirect and intrigue the audience.
The one-hour drama employs an usual format on dividing the first episode into two parts, with Noah first and then Alison giving their perspectives, which can be as mundane as how the other person was dressed on the occasion of the first meeting at the diner to things more meaningful such as which person was the actual aggressor. This split storytelling device continues to be an episodic feature.
Much younger than Noah, Alison is trying to piece her life back together in the wake of a tragedy in which her young son died in an accident.
Meanwhile, her relationship to husband Cole (Joshua Jackson) is seen as either troubled or merely emotionally charged as both parents cope with loss of a child.
Noah is also grappling with imperfect events and situations in his life.
For one, his relationship to his father-in-law, Bruce Butler (John Doman), a successful, prolific novelist, who is nonetheless crude, vulgar and dismissive, is not just strained and resentful, but verging on outright hostility.
On the other hand, aside from the not-so-atypical difficulties of raising independent-minded children, Noah’s family life does not appear to be so chaotic and nerve-wracking, especially when his wife is supportive, that he would veer off into a summer fling with a waitress.
There is nothing to inform the audience about why Noah would even entertain an affair. After all, his marriage to Helen has no signs of having soured or turning musty.
Has Noah becomes bored? Does he lack interest in carnal relations with his spouse? Is Alison the sexual firecracker that has ignited his new-found passion? The viewer is left to wonder.
For Alison, her life with Cole appears more conflicted and complicated.
For one thing, recent tragedy may have altered Alison’s view of marriage, which still has apparent sexual passion but there is a deep void in her soul that is not easily repaired by the presence of a husband who may be emotionally distant.
The most interesting and puzzling facet of “The Affair” is that part of the he-said, she-said dynamic is played out in the course of an ongoing police investigation into a possible crime that is neither revealed nor explained.
At different times in every episode, Noah and Alison are interrogated by a detective regarding recent events, focused mostly on their relationship.
At least in the initial episodes, the adultery lacks the very graphic nature that is more prevalent in many cable shows.
“The Affair” is not so much about the sexual nature of the affair but the psychological ramifications of infidelity.
More to the point, “The Affair” is a mystery, one that may be tricky to unravel because the plot keeps everyone in delicious suspense.
“The Affair” was recently launched on Showtime for a typical season run. It shouldn’t be too tough to catch up on previous episodes with Video on Demand or by other means.
“The Affair” requires chronological viewing; you just can’t jump into the story midstream. Nor would you want to.
Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.