Married couples might not want to watch The Affair together. Each episode chronicles a tryst from two perspectives: The first half belongs to Brooklyn author Noah (Dominic West), who’s visiting Montauk with his wife (Maura Tierney) and kids. The second belongs to his mistress, Alison (Ruth Wilson), a married waitress who grew up there and tragically lost her 4-year-old son. Noah and Alison are each giving their story to a detective who’s investigating a murder—we don’t yet know who’s dead—and given that their recollections don’t always match, it’s likely they’re both unreliable narrators. However, during an interview with EW, Joshua Jackson, who plays Alison’s husband, Cole, mused that men tend to believe Noah and women side with Alison.
Generalizations like that usually irk me, but in this case, I’m guilty as charged. From the couple’s first private moment on the beach—Noah remembers Alison wearing a sundress short enough to allow a glimpse of her underwear, while she remembers wearing denim cutoffs—I trusted Alison more. Only Noah’s version felt like pure fantasy. Given the chance, no woman would prefer to remember herself wearing jorts.
The Affair gets so many details right about where exactly couples’ memories diverge, and how the subjective nature of ”truth” comes to destroy relationships. It’s a popular trope in marriage dramas these days, between Gone Girl and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, but what makes this story feel fresh is that most characters exist only in Noah’s and Alison’s memories. Is Noah’s rich wife really that rude to servers, or does that idea just assuage Alison’s guilt? Is Noah’s best-selling-author father-in-law really so competitive about writing, or is Noah just jealous of his success? Is Cole a loving husband or an abusive one? It’s fitting that showrunners Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi previously produced the therapy drama In Treatment because the real intrigue here lies in psychoanalyzing Noah’s and Alison’s motives for believing their chosen fictions.
Yet at times the theme of subjectivity may make the show look smarter than it is: When Noah gives a Big Metaphorical Speech about time travel that’s really a message about infidelity, it’s unclear whether this is overwrought TV writing or good character development designed to show that the novelist is a bit of a hack. But the murder mystery is compelling, parceled out with expert timing in tiny clues, and the psychology is fascinating. It’s not just what the show reveals about men and women. It’s what whom you believe reveals about you. B+