Friday, January 16, 2015

The Affair : Showtime Series

Review : The Affair
Aired on : Showtime (2014 - )
My Rating : 7 out of 10

I watched Akira Kurosawa’s landmark movie “Rashomon” when I was quite young. I had heard raving praises about the director, as well as the movie. After watching it, I was disappointed, because I didn’t really get the movie. Now looking back, with much more experience of life, I understand why “Rashomon” is really so great and the point it made. Truth is elusive, and memories are conveniently clouded by our self-serving interpretations of what really happened.

The “Rashomon” technique, as it is often called, involves multiple people recounting the same incidents. Each person’s account can differ, not just because their memories are not perfect, but they perceive and interpret the events differently. Some stories eventually reveal “the” truth. But things get interestingly complex when all the viewer knows is just the different versions of the same story. It can be used to build suspense. When done correctly, it’s also a great tool for defining characters, by hinting at their biases.

The latest series on Showtime, “The Affair” uses this technique as the primary vehicle of narration. Noah Solloway (Dominic West) is a public school teacher, happily married to his college sweetheart Helen (Maura Tierney). Like every year, they and their 4 children leave their suburban New York home to spend the summer in Long Island with Helen’s super-rich parents. They stop at a local diner, where Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson) has been a waitress since she finished school. She is married to Cole (Joshua Jackson), who is from a local tightly knit family of ranch owners. Something clicks between Noah and Alison, although their recollection differs in interesting ways.

These recollections are happening while they are being interviewed by a detective. Why and what crime was committed? I do not like giving even minor spoilers in the review, so I will end the synopsis here.

As the recounted story progresses, the mystery deepens - as in, even when you get to know what crime was committed, the why, and by whom is not immediately clear. The writers and directors, excel at this aspect. The story of the past affair gets told to us in discrete chunks of two different viewpoints. Each episode has 2 parts, one for Noah, one for Alison. At the same time, some tantalizing hints are given about their present. These devices, acting in unison, capture our attention and make us want to watch more.

Still, the mystery aspect is very much a sideshow. The main focus of the story is human relationships, family issues and particularly marriage. Both the main characters are cheaters, and sometimes act in poor judgement. Stories where main characters are deeply flawed are often uncomfortable. But this is reality. All the characters are very human, not very likeable, but human nonetheless. The writers do an admirable job in exploring the challenges inherent in all types of relationships. Kudos for that.

This is a smartly made series, but I was surprised that it won the Golden Globe award. It has its share of deficiencies. The series never properly explained Noah that well. In the end I understood Alison’s reasons for breaking her marriage, but Noah’s actions seemed inconsistent with the impressions created by earlier scenes. It also felt overdrawn to me. There aren’t enough ingredients to engage us for ten episodes. To be honest, without the narration technique, the story in itself is not very interesting. With so much focus on relationships, misunderstandings between lovers, emotional flip-flops and the broken hearts, I wondered if I am watching the "Lifetime” channel.

Acting is overall very strong. I was not at all surprised to see Ruth Wilson winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress. She has done a fabulous job and it’s a well deserved award. Rest of the cast is also near perfect.

I recommend this sincerely made series, if you are in a mood to watch a serious drama. It’s definitely not for kids, and is correctly rated ‘MA’.

UPDATE : Added Season 2 Review.

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