The pairing of Dominic West and Ruth Wilson alone would be enough reason for enthusiasm about “The Affair,” a Showtime series that wraps infidelity in a mystery, then spoons out what happened in “Rashomon”-like dueling narratives. Launched behind “Homeland,” this is the kind of conceptually low-key series with which pay cable sometimes struggles to distinguish itself, but meticulously crafted and cleverly introduced, it’s likely to hook a discriminating audience, as well as launch Wilson, in particular, to another level in the U.S. after smaller theatrical roles and arresting TV work in her native U.K.
Why men cheat, of course, is an age-old question, especially when they seemingly have such idyllic-looking lives and so much to lose. In the case of West’s Noah, a schoolteacher and author (having sold a first novel), that includes a pretty wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), he’s still hot for and the four kids who inevitably interrupt them when they try to have sex.
In the premiere (the only episode thus far made available, and currently being offered early via various platforms), Noah and the family are trundling off to spend the summer at the home of her father (the happily ubiquitous John Doman, creating another mini-“The Wire” reunion with West), an extremely successful and imperious writer — and whose company, not surprisingly, Noah dreads.
When they stop to eat, he happens to meet Alison (Wilson), a waitress at the local diner. And this is where “The Affair” really gets interesting, since the show is bifurcated, related on parallel tracks through Noah and Alison, who remember what transpired in subtly different — but significant, and almost always self-serving — ways. (Even the wardrobe changes, a nifty touch.)
Moreover, the two are telling their tales to someone in law enforcement (think “True Detective”), suggesting something has gone terribly wrong. But what?
For her part, Alison is recovering, not very well, from an unimaginable loss, one that has strained her relationship with her husband Cole (Joshua Jackson). Having played a wide variety of roles — a ruthless killer in “Luther” being among the most memorable — Wilson conveys that unhappiness with enormous economy, saying much of it just with her eyes. Unlike West, who experiences occasional lapses, she sounds very much at ease with her Yankee accent.
Created by Sarah Treem, who also wrote the premiere, and Hagai Levy, with whom she collaborated on HBO’s “In Treatment,” “The Affair” makes good use of its framing device, allowing the story to gradually unfold, and creating an overhanging tension to each meaningful glance, along with the intriguing questions of whose account is more trustworthy.
Striking the right balance with such a character-driven construct can be perilous, but with the casting and initial tone, “The Affair” appears well ahead of the game, to the point where many will find further attendance compulsory.
“Everyone has one book in them,” Noah’s father-in-law tells him, before haughtily adding, “Almost nobody has two.”
The same is generally true for topnotch TV series. But if “The Affair” stays anywhere close to its first chapter, Treem and Levi appear destined to buck that trend.