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Thursday, 23 July 2015

THE AFFAIR (UK TV PREMIERE 2015) Dominic West and Ruth Wilson do the lobster jive on Long Island . . "If I ever want an affair, I think I'll have one with Alison too - after sitting through all 10 episodes of this heavy petting, I'm sold!"


Last year's racy US TV series 'The Affair' on Showtime, starring Dominic (Appropriate Adult) West and Ruth (How To Talk to Girls at Parties) Wilson, reached SKY Atlantic screens in the UK this summer and started off well, and with a bang you could say - or very nearly a bang anyway.

In the sweaty, petting, pilot episode (hanging out at a local swimming pool) Dominic's character of Noah Solloway finds himself tempted by a slim, young, slip of a thing in a swimsuit to die for (and talking of 'dying for' - there's time for a little bit of that kind of thing; a little bit of good old-fashioned murder, later in the series) or at least cheat on your middle-aged wife (Maura Tierney as Helen) for. Noah keeps his pecker in place though and swivels his wedding ring on his finger as a means of escape. So that, then, is the end of the affair.


Of course not; it's a double bluff (and we cleverly get to revisit that double bluff in the series finale with Carolina Ravassa donning another swimsuit and this time being the one engaged - but since when did that matter?).

The real affair in this series starts in a Long Island café in Montauk called The Lobster Roll (a place that actually does exist in real life) where Noah meets a young waitress called Alison (Ruth Wilson); a nymph-like creature with a sly grin who (depending on whether you believe his version, or hers) saves the younger daughter of the Solloways from choking, between dishing up plates of hot cross Lobster.

It's the start of a growing bud of flirtation between Alison and Noah, followed by eventual athletic sexual trysts, repercussions and a spot of murder (sort of). Only 'sort of' because, so far; by the end of the series in fact, and almost criminally - it is only still sort of. We know something has probably happened to someone but we don't know what, why, where or even by whom - so no spoilers in this review then!


In true 'True Detective' style, all the furtive couplings and full-on flirtations are interspersed with scenes of Alison or Noah being interviewed by a Gruffalo-like, grizzly detective (Jeffries, played by Victor Williams) who tries to get a clearer idea of what happened between these two lovebirds on Long Island and who killed who by mostly glaring at them and asking "What happened at The End?" - like a viewer asking for a plot spoiler. He'll be lucky - we don't even know; not even by Episode 10!

Noah is only on Long Island for the summer, but it doesn't matter. That's about 58 quick shags at least, if he times his affair right. He's there to visit his wife's parents. Luckily for Noah, his father-in-law is also a bestselling writer with good contacts in the publishing industry. And even more luckily, he soon gets to meet his father-in-law's literary agent at a party where he is promptly offered interest in one of his books. You know - that's how writers get to write; by meeting a friend of a friend at a party and being nice to them. Or getting them drunk and climbing into their bed (allegedly - or is that another series?). And anyway, Noah's already doing that with the local waitress, so guess what - he has a drink with the man instead. And gets a book deal. Neat!

The whole series is strung together with clever - if occasionally irritating - narrative where we get Alison's side of the story for half an hour, followed by Noah's. It's often brilliant and works best when there are only minor differences and it must feel like heaven for all those who love spotting little movie mistakes. Here the mistakes are entirely deliberate - like part of the puzzle!


It's also interesting to see stereotypes devoured and Alison's story is often the more lusty (it seems, at times; depending on your interpretation - or maybe your sex) although driven by personal tragedy. Her wilder, perhaps even more physical needs, often show up Noah's clearer, less complicated motives and occasional flashes of prudishness (after an early false start in the pilot in which Noah's side is far more down and dirty - Alison looking more sexualised in his version, with her dress riding up on the beach and revealing too much, or with wilder, come-to-bed hair and a shorter waitress uniform on than she has in her own retelling of the day they first met). 

The script, and story, by Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem, the show's creators, definitely likes to play with conventions and not be (as you may expect) always down on blokes. Sympathy flitters between both central characters like an undecided lover.

Alison's own relatives work on a local ranch that's fast sinking in financial decline as does her partner (Joshua Jackson as Cole) who we also meet at the end of the pilot episode and get to like. As Noah's own daughter tells cheating Alison later in the series: "Why do you have to make out with an old man when you have a hot young stud in your bed?" - or words to that effect. She's not wrong though (although Dominic West does have many admirers out there and has clearly been in the gym of late!). Alison's family come across as slightly weak, and stupidly crafty, small town Ewings (straight out of Dallas) and less of the potential criminals and drug dealers they may appear to be later on. They are, shall we say - only mildly criminal (and probably for all the right reasons).

An episode set entirely on seductive Block Island as a getaway for Noah and Alison to really let loose, is a standout mid-series and for once the narratives almost agree (a smart shift). Clever and enthralling in script, wit and direction, the two leads really come into their own here and deliriously make you want to see the rest of the series right through, right now! 
It may also have been the point a second series was commissioned, although really - it's still going to be hard to see how that fast approaching  second series could do this one trick storyline much justice without going through the motions. The main hope being that this show has writers that dare to do something different, even when it backfires or doesn't quite work (as in Episode 10, where it falters and lacks a decent end of season money shot) it's still better than being boring! Even the title music (by Fiona Apple) is hauntingly fresh and fab from the start.


In fact, on reflection - a second series, focusing on a new affair or the action being seen from the viewpoint of other characters, could work very well. Certainly, this is a show that's good enough (and at times brilliant) and blessed with a blistering cast to be given a second shot. Ruth Wilson as Alison is a revelation and mind-blowingly good - deliciously sexy at times, she also conveys the full weight of tragedy (and dowdiness when needed), forbidden desire and occasional guilt (though not much) on her shoulders with a seductive, sly ease.

If I ever want an affair, I think I'll have one with Alison too (after sitting through all 10 episodes of this heavy petting, I'm sold). Some of you may feel the same about Noah (and without the need of a trendy website to help you get there).

You see, affairs are apparently all the rage these days; here in suburbia or wherever you are. Just the other day, I read a news report that told of how a website helping people to have anonymous affairs was allegedly being targeted by a group threatening to send all the names of those doing the deed to their spouses and make it all public. Could an imported US drama now being shown on UK screens ever be more timely? Those neat, simple affairs are the new S/M - so move over Mr Grey, and throw those handcuffs away!

The Affair does, rather cheekily, dip a digit or two into populist Shades of Grey territory at times - most notably with Noah telling Alison, mid-lovemaking rest, that he wants to discover new ways of doing things with her that she hasn't done before, while stroking her buttocks suggestively. Oh nice - how about the other way round matey! Anyway, Alison asks Noah if he's ever done it that way (whatever it is he's thinking of) in the past (and the way he clearly now wants to) and he says he has. Alison - sensibly - tells him that maybe next time she'll give it a go. (In other words: I'm taking a rain check!)

Dominic West is low key but fabulous in the growly, conniving, calm way he gets to shed all inhibitions and roll his butt up and down in the name of good Sunday night telly. Joking apart, he's a downbeat, sulky, occasionally giggly and excitable (like a boy with a first love on a date) over-sexed, bad mid-life crisis kind of a guy - and perfect for the role.

The sex is explicit enough to make your sofa blush a deeper shade of red - it feels real enough (not literally; no sexual TV boundaries are broken here . . or at least I don't think so!) to matter. And Maura Tierney, as neglected wife Helen, casts aside usual stereotypes found in this kind of role with a brave and flawed performance; as wounded as it is defiant and with extra added, brutal honesty. "You don't even want to fuck me anymore," she tells Noah, seriously wanting him to, and just before he does the decent thing - and does.


Noah and Helen's teenage daughter Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles) is also fabulous as a preening, bullying adolescent making hay with the nearest young lad she finds working at the ranch. His family - and hers - aren't quite so happy with the consequences. And so the murder subplot comes into play . .


This move, into thriller territory, isn't all that well handled and ultimately wasted as Series One concludes. In fact, the very final episode almost negates the entire plot that has come before it by showing Noah as a weakened man indulging in what is now just another man's mid-life crisis with new young lovers and a compilation of sex scenes that are more of a Benny Hill intent than any that came before. There's even some fast humping in the school grounds where he works and (at one ridiculous point) he is watched by a red-faced caretaker as he does the deed. Oh well, I suppose it's all in good fun and quite enjoyable - Noah going off the rails may not be entirely believable, but it does provide a glimmer of the chance that he is, as his daughter accuses him of being . . a sociopath!

A scene linking back to the very first episode featuring the girl at the swimming pool (Carolina Ravassa as Jules) is pretty damn smouldering (and explicit) and provides a nice link back to the pilot before the series ends. It will be fun if this character appears again in the second series and is fleshed out more fully (after all, she also now owns a husband to cheat on - so is very much part of the club).

Episode 10's prematurely climatic crazy excitement and hurried snatches of explicit copulation amid all the increasingly dull, familial routine (that seems to have no end in sight) is probably about as close to actually having a quick affair as television gets. But it isn't much of a happy pill to end the series on as it's followed by a final half hour full of confused, unconvincing, soap operatic slogging it out.

Shoving everything into the mix and leaving characters devoid of the personality traits earned by clever plotting earlier in the series seems to have as its only possible explanation, a clear intention to leave you wanting more and escape to a second series (premiering in a few months time in the US) without thinking about why or even if it should. Although, if this was the plan all along; to spread the affair out over a multitude of seasons - then I stand corrected.

Also, if a series ever jumped the shark early (or the mattress in the cheap guest house bed) I reckon it could be this one; whether revealing the affair to partners close to mid-series or having Noah have a series of other brief flings other than the main attraction (with Alison) before the story ends is a big risk. But it's done in such a ballsy, brazen way, that it probably doesn't matter:

"Hey, we've had the affair, got found out, did it again a few times and then the series is over - so what's next? How about let's have the wife get her revenge on hubby and have an affair too."

"With the husband of the woman her husband was playing around with? Yes!"

(Disclaimer: The above Series 2 possible plot devices are all from my own pitiful imagination!)

The main crime with the stormy conclusion to The Affair is that it's a big fat tease and the murder plot is hardly furthered at all. I want a full blown screw-up with this murder plotline instead of a touch of thigh and a glimpse of lacy killer bra. Just give us what we want! Instead, the whodunit (and why) just feels like an afterthought, or a 'by the way'. Still, it's been a fun ride, full of wild, creative flourishes with a meaty depiction of a never less than convincing affair that always feels kind of dirty and real and secret; just like being in love.

I often felt like a voyeur watching The Affair at times. And (don't tell your wife) it felt really good!


Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

THE AFFAIR was started, and is owned, by SHOWTIME . .

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