After I saw Derek Cianfrance's 2010 film Blue Valentine – the one in which Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling attempt to rebuild their ramshackle marriage in a spaceship-themed motel suite – I went into work eager to talk about the film with a co-worker and friend who I knew would have seen it. We both loved the movie, but as we discussed it, it became clear that we had seen two very different films: one about a frighteningly suffocating relationship, the other about a man who would do anything for the woman he loves.
A new Showtime series embodies this sense of narrative impasse. The Affair (TMN, Oct. 12, 10 p.m.) stars Dominic West (The Wire's Jimmy McNulty) as Noah, a teacher and novelist vacationing with his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), and their four children at his father-in-law's Montauk mansion for the summer. There, he meets Alison (Ruth Wilson), a married waitress at a diner where his family stops on the way from Brooklyn to the beach.
After it's understood that Noah and Alison are on the road to adultery, The Affair puts its thing down, flips it, and reverses it: Half of each episode is told from Noah's perspective, the other half from Alison's. Also, True Detective-style, Noah and Alison are being interrogated separately by the police – for reasons as yet unknown – some time after the summer of their affair.
It's not just that we see the events of Noah's and Alison's relationship unfold from different camera angles. Their memories of their interactions reveal two very different versions of each character. "Early on, they both see each other as the provocateur of the affair," Wilson says in a round-table interview with the series' stars in New York. In Noah's version, Alison is aggressively flirtatious; in Alison's, he's a cad. West adds: "When he remembers her, she's got shorter skirts and bigger boobs."
The two-sides-to-every-story angle is intriguing, but will it hold up over a nine-episode season? TV dramas and comedies alike undertake this kind of narrative slice-and-dice at their peril. I thought it was brilliant, but when Netflix shovelled the entirety of Arrested Development's fourth season onto its site in one dump last year, some people complained that the season's shifting-perspectives conceit – the same events were shown several times, from the viewpoint of different characters – was simply confusing.
But The Affair is after something beyond testing its audience's eye for detail. Noah doesn't know it yet, but Alison has recently suffered a terrible loss. While he sees himself as "a man drowning in children," in West's words, Alison sees Noah as a potentially sexy distraction from her pain. And since Noah doesn't know about Alison's loss, in the scenes from his point of view, Wilson plays the character accordingly. "In the first few episodes," Wilson says, "I decided to play one [version of Alison] laden with grief and the other without the grief. He sees a version of me that perhaps existed before the grief happened."
Alison can be a different person with Noah than with her own husband, Cole, played by Joshua Jackson. In one key scene that modifies and repeats itself in the pilot episode, Noah witnesses Cole and Alison having sex up against their car, parked in the driveway of their beach house. Through Noah's eyes, the sex is clearly not consensual; through Alison's, it is, although it is violent. "You can choose whether he is an honest-to-god abusive husband," Jackson says of his character. "That's open to interpretation."
Over the past few years, television has enjoyed a marked shift toward stories that are told from a woman's point of view, a direct result of more women writing and creating shows. (The Affair was co-created by Sarah Treem, who previously wrote for House of Cards and In Treatment.) The recent proliferation of shows created by women – Girls, Masters of Sex, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Scandal, Orange is the New Black, and the fantastic new Amazon original series Transparent – has meant not only more women in central roles, but more kinds of women in those roles. These programs don't offer "a woman's perspective," but many women's perspectives.
And yet, The Affair doesn't favour the woman's perspective. Its approach to character-building mirrors the way we actually get to know people. "'Good guy' is not a state of being," Jackson says. "Good and bad are fluid, and as you get to know these characters, your allegiances shift as you blend the two narratives together." The Affair's storytelling method constantly tests its viewers' assumptions, rendering the tired debate about "likable" characters moot.
The Affair is not only about an affair, but also about the way experience hardens into narrative, how one event can spin off into infinite iterations. Which of the stories told in The Affair is true? Both of them? Neither? You can try to pick a side, but the show doesn't make it easy.