No one on TV does adultery better than Dominic West.
That’s what I kept thinking as I watched the first episode of “The Affair,” a 10-part series premiering on Showtime at 10 p.m. Sunday.
There are deeper things to think about in connection with this finely wrought drama from Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, the team responsible for HBO’s “In Treatment.”
There’s the complex and multilayered storytelling that shifts from one character’s point of view to the other in recounting the affair — with small differences in memory between the two leading to large shifts in moral responsibility. And with one narrator being male and the other female, there’s a wealth of gender differences that are subtly and wisely explored.
Episode 1, which was written by Treem, unfolds more like the opening chapter of a novel than a standard TV drama. When the first major break in point of view came halfway through the hour, I thought of “Gone Girl.”
But there are shifts in time as well. Think HBO’s “True Detective” with its narrative of events being recollected by the leading characters during police interrogations. Here, the story of the affair is also being told to a police investigator. The sense that a crime appears to be involved lends depth and a taut, noirish edge to the hour.
“We wanted to fracture the story of one relationship and tell it within a ‘Rashomon’-like framing device,” is the way Treem describes it in press materials from Showtime. “We then decided to make our central relationship an affair. Because if there are two sides to every relationship, there are six sides to every affair. It’s as if, due to the pressure of the circumstance, the ‘self’ starts to fracture.”
The series opens with West’s character, Noah Solloway, a New York City public school teacher, having an early morning swim at a health club pool. Noah, an aspiring writer who just had his first novel published, is a happily married father of four. Or, so it seems, anyway.
We believe his marriage is sound, because less than two minutes into the series, an attractive woman is swimming in Noah’s lane and letting him know she’s interested. He seems oblivious even as she hurries to get behind him in line at the poolside shower. After a brief exchange with the young woman outside the club, Noah comes straight home and wakes his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), with the start of some intense foreplay.
Treem and Levi are playing the Dominic West sex card for all it is worth in the first few minutes of this production, and why not? If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And West is superb at oozing sensuality while acting as if he’s unaware of the red-hot vibes he’s radiating.
Noah will later characterize his life before the affair by saying, “My children were healthy. My wife was beautiful. My life was pretty [expletive] perfect.” But, in truth, his family life is far more complicated than that.
His teenage daughter appears to be doing drugs and wrestling with an eating disorder, while a teen son, who seems anxious, angry and depressed, is flirting with suicide. Noah intensely dislikes his father-in-law (John Doman), a hugely successful and totally unpleasant author living in the Hamptons. And that’s where Noah and his family are headed for the next three months — to spend the summer with the in-laws.
“I was restless, sure. All men are restless,” Noah also says of his state of mind prior to the affair. A contradiction? Maybe. Noah seems full of them.
There is, by the way, a delicious little treat for fans of “The Wire” in the casting of Doman as Solloway’s obnoxious father-in-law. Doman played Deputy Police Commissioner William A. Rawls in “The Wire,” and no member of Baltimore’s police brass seemed to dislike West’s Det. Jimmy McNulty more than Rawls.
Fans of “The Wire” will not be able to watch Noah and his father-in-law, having a drink oceanside at the older man’s estate, without thinking of McNulty and Rawls. But it’s not crucial to enjoying this series. It’s just an added bit of intertextual pleasure.
Most of the first hour is spent with action that took place during the summer in the Hamptons between Noah and Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson), a waitress at a local diner. Alison and her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson), are trying to recover emotionally from a death in their family, and she seems to still be profoundly sad.
Wilson, who all but stole the show from star Idris Elba in a recurring role as the deadly Alice Morgan in the Brit cop drama “Luther,” is every bit of a match for West. Her role here appears to be the tougher of the two in the way it calls for her to both generate enough sexual energy to help drive the drama while also playing a character who is clinically depressed to the point of distraction at times. She makes you feel Alison’s pain — even as you feel the heat between her and Noah.
But for all of that fine writing by Treem and acting by Wilson, the more I think about the “The Affair,” the more I find myself meditating on West and adultery. I believe his ability to so engagingly portray an adulterer in roles like Noah Solloway, Jimmy McNulty or Hector Madden on BBC’s “The Hour” goes to the heart of what makes him such an exceptional TV talent.
In a 2012 profile I wrote of West, David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” talked about the actor’s performance as McNulty.
“He gave the character colors and facets that we were able to utilize for five seasons, creating a main protagonist that was highly intelligent, very angry, dryly comic and humanly flawed,” Simon said.
“At some points, the audience desperately wanted McNulty to be a better man than he was, and at other key moments, that same audience came to love him for being so bluntly honest and indifferent to the rules,” Simon added. “Dom provided room for all of that.”
West creates that same kind of room in Noah Solloway to say both that his life was “perfect” and that he felt “restless” before the affair. As a result, there is room for viewers to both condemn Noah and understand if not even like him.
“Noah Solloway believes that he is a good person,” Treem writes. “Armed with a set of strict moral codes, he is committed to his wife, Helen, and their four children.”
But, in trying to explain Noah’s affair, Treem quotes Esther Perel, author of “Mating in Captivity,” who said, “Very often, we don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person. We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.”
Noah, she says, “starts our series as a man dissatisfied, not with his wife, but with himself.”
The writing in “The Affair” is daring, deep and compelling. But it wouldn’t work without an equally inspired performance by West in making us feel what life is like inside adultery.
“The Affair” premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime. It is already streaming online at SHO.com and elsewhere.