DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
I'm TV critic David Bianculli. The broadcast networks continue to roll out their new fall series. The CW network premiered "The Flash" week and unveils another surprisingly entertaining series, "Jane The Virgin," on Monday. But cable networks, which used to take a breather as the broadcasters strutted their fall stuff, now compete as strongly as at any other time. This week, FX presented "Freak Show," the latest and strongest incarnation of its "American Horror Story" anthology franchise. And this Sunday, Showtime launches a drama that ultimately could emerge as the very best new TV series of 2014.
Showtime's newest drama series, "The Affair," is the story of two people who betray their respective spouses and fall into an extramarital relationship. What makes this TV show so distinctively different and so utterly captivating is that it's not told from just one point of view. It's like Akira Kurosawa's classic Japanese drama, "Rashomon." Or Arthur Miller's "Death Of A Salesman," where memories are revisited that turn out to be less than entirely accurate or trustworthy. It means you have to pay close attention. But if you do, the subtleties and subtexts build up and offer entirely new possible interpretations of events. To make this work on TV, you have to start with charismatic actors. People good enough at their craft and so likable as performers that you forgive them their trespasses, even as you see them stray down a troublesome path. Showtime's "The Affair" nails that element of the equation, as it does every other part, a hundred percent.
The part of Noah Solloway - the New York public school teacher and first-time author, with a wife and four kids - is played by Dominic West, who shot to stardom as McNulty on HBO's "The Wire." The part of Alison Lockhart - a Long Island waitress with a husband and a shared recent tragedy - is played by Ruth Wilson, who impressed me tremendously as the unhinged stalker on the original season of the BBC America import "Luther." And their respective spouses are no slouches either. Maura Tierney, from "ER," plays Noah's wife and Joshua Jackson, from "Fringe," plays Alison's husband. "The Affair" is structured as one long series of flashbacks, not intertwined but presented in turn.
So in Sunday's premiere episode, for example, we see how Noah and Alison met, first from his perspective in the show's first half-hour, then in hers. Each portion reveals details and background missing from the other. But even when they cover the same ground, the details are different, down to who makes the first move, even the first joke. Some facts are uncontested. Noah and his family go on summer vacation at his father-in-law's estate in eastern Long Island. In town, Alison the waitress serves them breakfast. And late that night, when Noah breaks away to take a solo stroll on the beach, he encounters Alison, who's sitting there all alone away from a bonfire party farther down the beach. Here's how that encounter began, according to him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AFFAIR")
DOMINIC WEST: (As Noah Solloway) Alison? Hi.
RUTH WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) You found me.
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) No, no, I was just out on a walk.
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) (Laughter) I'm kidding, it's a tiny town (laughter).
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) Right, sorry.
BIANCULLI: And later, when that same scene is recounted in the second half of the show, from Alison's point of view, it starts like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AFFAIR")
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) Hello.
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) Oh, hi.
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) I found you.
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) Were you looking for me?
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) No, I'm kidding.
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) Oh.
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) I was just on my way to check out the bonfire over there.
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) Oh, wow.
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) You coming from there or are you?
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) I, no, I.
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) Too bad, I could've used an introduction.
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) (Laughter).
BIANCULLI: This isn't the first time TV has tried a he says she says approach to marriage and marital infidelity. The first was in a pair of 1973 ABC made-for-TV movies called "Divorce His And Divorce Hers." That starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. But "The Affair" is much less shrill, much more polished and much more challenging. The closer you listen and the more you observe the more fascinating Showtime's "The Affair" becomes. Watching the opening episode, I was especially knocked out by the attention to tiny details, like how the trendy sunglasses worn by Noah's coming-of-age teenage daughter, in his recollection, turned into heart-shaped Lolita sunglasses in Alison's memory of her. Who's telling the truth here? And why do such inconsistencies matter, if they do it all?
"The Affair' is created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, who last worked on another superb examination of memory and credibility - HBO's riveting series about psychotherapy called "In Treatment." The other executive producers are just as commendable. Eric Overmyer was a writer-producer on "Homicide: Life On The Street," "The Wire," and "Treme." And Jeffrey Reiner was a producer and director on "Friday Night Lights." Like the actors, they've all done excellent work here to tell these stories.
But which character's story is the more believable? Whose memory and whose point of view proves more trustworthy? Ultimately, that's for us viewers to decide. And my decision, already, is that "The Affair" is a new show I believe has to be added to my weekly must-watch list. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.