'The Affair': A Very Bad Romance

The 'True Detective'-meets-'Rashomon' drama is less about sex and more about the lies we tell ourselves

Ruth Wilson as Alison and Dominic West as Noah in 'The Affair.' Credit: Showtime

The Affair tells the oldest story in the book: a bored husband, a salty young girlfriend, a summer fling gone horribly wrong. But the Showtime drama's brilliant twist is letting both the man and the woman tell the tale from their different points of view to a cop investigating a murder mystery. They remember steamy coupling, vicious fights, plenty of deceit. You can't be sure when they're lying or when they just recall things differently. You can't even tell how many corpses there are. But these two are clearly digging themselves deeper into trouble the longer they talk. The Affair could have been titled How to Not Get Away With a Goddamn Thing.

It's hard to look at Dominic West and not see him as McNulty on The Wire – he was always so great at getting his ass kicked. And he suffers similar agonies here, as the chump of a cheating husband, Noah. He's a teacher and a frustrated writer, spending the summer on Long Island with his wife and kids. His rich in-laws humiliate him constantly. And he can't get cooking on his second novel. He's the kind of guy who ducks into the local library and peeks to see if anyone has checked out his book. (Nobody has.)

So Noah is an easy target for trouble. And no surprise – the trouble he finds has a short skirt and a few dark secrets of her own. Ruth Wilson's Alison is the small-town waitress down at the diner, married to the hot-blooded rancher Joshua Jackson. Noah and Alison make eye contact and start licking their lips. They smell disaster in the air – and they like it.

Despite all the heat and violence, The Affair is really about how we talk – the stories people tell about themselves, to liven up their otherwise tedious lives. Noah and Alison trade off the narrative True Detective-style, with clashing accounts of the summer they met and fell in lust. Yet from the beginning, they're in it for the story, not the sex. They each love to spin themselves as the noble tragic figure in the tale, even when their facts are wildly contradictory. Noah even pitches his novel to the cop who's interrogating him, which is some truly astounding hubris.

The melancholy power of The Affair is that the characters are walking clichés – except they get flipped a little sideways, because they're painfully self-conscious about how predictable their problems are. "I know what you think you see," Alison tells Noah contemptuously after sex. "Some easy going girl who's gonna shake you up with her free spirit, so by the end of the summer, you can go back home to your boring wife with a bounce in your step." Guilty as charged.

The Affair wouldn't work if it were nothing but Noah and Alison – the real power of the story is in the fling's collateral damage on their friends and families. Jackson and Maura Tierney are the duped -spouses, both sympathetic yet nowhere near saintly. And in a casting masterstroke, Noah's blowhard father-in-law is John Doman – McNulty's old commanding officer from The Wire, who looks like he still hates this guy enough to ship him off to the midnight shift on the marine unit.

But even if this isn't much of a romance, it's all they've got. For Noah and Alison, living out this story is a refuge from their lonely everyday existence. And so is retelling it, even if they're talking to a cop who pulls the classic "Oh, just one more question" trick from Columbo – and it works on both of them. What makes The Affair so effectively saddening is that Noah and Alison, like so many lovers, keep discovering that what they're escaping to isn't so different from what they were running from in the first place.