The first thing to be said about new U.S. television series “The Affair,” created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, is that you have to watch the first episode until the very end to gain a true impression of it. The second thing is, it’s important to remember that the secret of Levi’s groundbreaking Israeli series “BeTipul” (remade overseas as “In Treatment”) was its revolutionary format. Clearly, the content, acting and script were a major part of that noughties success, but the genius of “BeTipul” – the first Israeli series to be bought and adapted for a U.S. television audience, by high-profile HBO – was its minimalist approach, requiring only a low budget to produce great television.
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In its original Israeli format, it showed a psychologist (Assi Dayan) who conducted therapy sessions all week long with various patients, and then at the end of the week had therapy himself. That format didn’t suit the U.S. scheduling approach, so it was changed to some extent, but the new approach was also innovative.
So what’s the relevance of the “In Treatment” format to the first episode of “The Affair,” which was commissioned by Showtime (the U.S. cable network also behind “Homeland” and “Masters of Sex”)? It’s that the format of the new series is important, and if viewers approach the show without knowing that it presents the same events from different points of view, they are liable to think the viewpoint of the series’ protagonist, Noah – played by Dominic West (“The Wire,” “The Hour”) – is also that of the creators of the series.
When viewers arrive at the second part of the first episode, and later on in the nine subsequent episodes, they also will be introduced to the perspective of the female protagonist, Alison (played by Ruth Wilson – “Luther”), when the plotline offers a completely different interpretation. Sometimes even memory plays tricks, and the mind also likes to deceive. The viewers themselves are required to fill in the gaps. In the process, the creators look at the emotional implications of an extramarital affair from these varying perspectives. The first installment airs on Sunday in the United States, and two days later on HOT in Israel.
SPOILER ALERT: In the episode, we learn about the future affair between Noah and Alison. He is a schoolteacher in New York who has also written a book. Married for 17 years to Helen (Maura Tierney) and a father of four, the couple seems to have a happy life together. But Noah is seemingly suffocated (clearly hinted at by two incidents in the first episode). The family takes a summer trip to Helen’s wealthy parents’ home in the Hamptons. The father, Bruce (John Doman), is despised by Noah and his son, and in the viewers’ first encounter with him – told from Noah’s perspective – Bruce comes across as a caricature of a rich man, an ascot around his neck and a glass of expensive wine in hand.
Alison, married to Cole (Joshua Jackson, “Fringe”), is a waitress at a Montauk diner. Coming from an entirely different social class that must serve the tony area’s vacationers, she is forced to contend with both economic and other difficulties. Her initial encounter with Noah is at the diner, which he visits with his family. Initially, the meeting is portrayed almost as something out of the Michael Douglas-Glenn Close 1987 thriller “Fatal Attraction.” Alison is seen as a seductress whose advances toward Noah end in a disturbing scene.
But is that really what happened? After all, we are only seeing things from Noah’s vantage point. And even from the first scene in the show – in which Noah is engaged in a conversation poolside – he is seen as the object of nonstop female advances, brushing women off.
On the one hand, it comes across as credible. West is an attractive small-screen actor (and the audience is given a sex scene within three minutes of the first episode commencing). On the other, if one takes into account the character he is playing, it’s less clear. Maybe it’s just his dirty mind turning him into the perceived object of female desire, something that is twice made reference to in the first episode.
In any event, from Alison’s perspective things are different. For her, she wasn’t the one to make the initial advance, and the special relationship that develops with Noah and his family comes from an entirely different place. Noah is not aware of it, but it’s rooted in a formative event from her past that completely shaped her life.
And then there’s another point of view, hovering mysteriously over the series as if from HBO’s “True Detective.” Half an hour into the first episode of “The Affair,” it becomes clear that Noah is not the narrator, but is instead passing on information about the affair to a police detective. The characters are involved in a police investigation, casting the “affair” with a different meaning that is not necessarily romantic in nature.
These perspectives impart layers of interest and tension among the various narratives. Executive producer/writer Treem (who also wrote a couple of scripts for Kevin Spacey’s “House of Cards” and the U.S. version of “In Treatment”) has, along with Levi, produced a gripping storyline. Fellow executive producers Jeffrey Reiner (“Friday Night Lights”) and Eric Overmyer (who, like West, also worked on “The Wire”) also are masters at their craft.
Welcome to the end of the world, Alison tells Noah’s family as they arrive at the diner, situated at the end of Long Island. It’s a loaded comment which, if it doesn’t seduce Noah, certainly seduces the audience.
“The Affair” airs in Israel on Hot 3, Tuesdays at 22:15