‘The Affair’s’ Dual Narrative and ‘Sensational Hook’ Reeled in Showtime

“Great pay cable shows are about characters in extreme situations,” says Showtime president David Nevins, “but I’ve always wanted to do something about regular people in marriage. Then (showrunner) Sarah (Treem) comes in and hits me with a show that examines marriage through the lens of adultery. It’s a sensational hook.”

The idea for “The Affair” started with Hagai Levi, the creator of HBO’s “In Treatment.” “I like to take a topic that is common and make it my own,” he explains. “What happens if you consider yourself a good person, and you lose that image of yourself?”

Levi had worked with Sarah Treem on “In Treatment,” and recruited her to help develop the concept for the new show. They honed in on the “Rashomon”-like structure, recounting the affair from each character’s perspective. “Usually you only see it from one point-of-view,” Levi says. “I thought it would be very distinct to tell it from two points of view — and only those two points of view — to be in the eye of the storm of those two people.”

Nevins bought the concept in the room, Treem recalls: “I don’t think he even let us get through our pitch.”

Shows are getting bigger and bigger, says Nevins. “I wanted to go counter,” he says.“This is an opportunity to get back to one of the things that television does really well, which is close-up intimacy. ”

Nevins was also hooked by the conflicting he-said/she-said stories. “Our memories are notoriously fickle,” he explains. “(During development), we always talked about, ‘Do you remember what your husband or wife was wearing the day you met?’ People were inevitably wrong.” (For the record: He admits he was wrong, too. So was his wife.)

Both newcomers to Showtime, Treem and Levi praise the collaborative experience they had with Nevins and his execs.

Treem points to the scene at the end of the pilot, where Noah watches Alison with her husband. “That came out of David,” she says. “He felt that something needed to happen between Alison and Noah — something big. He kept pushing for it. And that was the scene that sells the pilot in the end.”

He also pushed for less repetition of the same scenes. “I’m constantly trying to make narrative move fast — I didn’t want to spend too much time repeating beats,” Nevins says. “The story is always moving forward and backward at the same time. It keeps you on the edge of your seat.”

That’s because it’s not just about adultery: “The Affair” is also a whodunit. “The reason we came up with the detective subplot as a framework is because the whole point of the show is, is there such a thing as an objective truth?” Treem posits. “Hagai and I talked about (the idea that) maybe they’re talking to journalists or researchers or a therapist. We landed on a crime story, because the person who is investigating it is searching for truth. But even they come at the investigation from their own perspective. It’s really impossible for the energy of your own perspective not to influence events.”

That said, this isn’t “The Killing.” “There is one objective truth to what happened,” Treem promises. “You will, at the end of the day, find out the truth of the crime the detectives have been investigating.”

Until then, buckle your seat belt, she warns. “Our director of photography describes ‘The Affair’ as a theme-park ride that starts out boring, but then all of a sudden the lights goes out, the ride drops significantly, and it starts to go backwards at 80 miles an hour. That’s the experience of the show. You’re in the story of an affair, and all of a sudden, the rug gets pulled out from under you.”

When it comes to marriage, she says, small things have big consequences. “The idea that I’ve always had in my head is that in the lives of normal people, an affair is a life-and-death scenario. That’s the essence of the show we’re trying to write.”

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