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  1. Life & Culture

Review: 'The Affair' lures you in with fresh take on a tired topic

Stories about people having affairs in pop culture have become frustratingly rote.

There's always a series of predictable steps. First is the attraction to someone the character is not supposed to be with. Then the part where he or she really shouldn't do a certain thing but does it anyway. Then the part where the partner gets blamed for pushing the other to stray. And, finally, the terrible moment when everyone finds out.

Showtime's new drama The Affair, premiering Sunday, has all the trappings of this cliched trope.

The show opens on Noah (Dominic West), a writer, teacher and father of four who lives with his wife (Maura Tierney) and kids in a New York City brownstone. We meet them as they're heading to the wife's rich parents' estate in the Hamptons for the summer.

It's there that Noah meets a younger, alluring woman, a waitress at a diner near the in-laws' house Noah's family stops at. And we have reason to suspect he might be interested in her. The show's first scene makes clear how attractive Noah is to other strangers, and he's played by the ruggedly handsome West, whose last major role on American TV was as unfaithful detective Jimmy McNulty on The Wire. A capacity for infidelity is baked into the character.

And for the first half of Sunday's episode, it all plays out how you'd expect: Noah's interest is piqued by the waitress. In no time, he's running into her at night, going back to her place, saying things like "I don't know what I'm doing here."

But then the perspective shifts.

The salacious story is re-told, from the waitress' perspective. Her name is Alison (Ruth Wilson), and she lives with her husband in a house on the beach. It's with this shift that The Affair goes from good to something better.

Notice how different Alison looks when the story's told from her perspective: her hair is messier, her skirt appears longer, she's not the instigator in her interactions with Noah. She's not just an object of male desire; she's a fully rounded person with serious emotional heft. Wilson plays her as two different people in each half: sunny and sexy and accommodating in Noah's memory, dark and sad and preoccupied in hers.

Telling the story this way is smart, and instantly makes The Affair's characters more fleshed out. The actors are more than up for the challenge, with Wilson in particular a standout in a cast of more well-known actors doing strong work, like West and Joshua Jackson (Fringe) as Alison's husband. And the affair angle is wonderfully complicated by the fact that Noah's wife is played by the predictably great Tierney, who is so not the sort of wife often portrayed in affair stories (cold, sexless, naggy) that it makes the inevitable adulterous path the story might take that much more interesting.

Sunday's episode also reveals that there's yet another twist to the storytelling: Allison and Noah's differing perspectives are being told to law enforcement, who are questioning the two because of something that happened presumably as a result of an affair. ("Tell me about how this whole mess got started," one of them asks.) We don't know what that incident is — a murder? an accident? — but the framing device succeeds in adding a bit of menace to the plot. It's an intriguing structure, but the show should tread lightly when it comes to withholding too much from the audience for too long. The longer the big mystery lingers, the more important it becomes to the show, and the more pressure there is to make it meaningful.

In reality, The Affair almost doesn't need the mystery. It's unique and compelling all on its own.

Michelle Stark can be reached at mstark@tampabay.com. Follow @mstark17 on Twitter.

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