The Devil in the Details: Why You Should Be Watching The Affair

By  · Published on October 5th, 2015


Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem’s The Affair premiered in October last year to solid ratings plus two Golden Globe wins (one for Best TV Series Drama and one for Ruth Wilson’s portrayal Alison Bailey, one half of the couple stepping out on their marriages). The series is coming back for a second season on Showtime this fall which, yes, means you need Showtime to see it, but subscription based series like HBO’s Game of Thrones and Netflix’s bevy of new series have proven that viewers are willing to pay for good content.

And The Affair is good content.

The series focuses on a seemingly simple question: “Why do people cheat?” But The Affair does not attempt to answer this question. It instead opts to show the differing points of view of those involved in this increasingly complicated relationship and asks the viewers to draw their own conclusions. As Joshua Jackson, who plays Alison’s husband Cole, says about the series, “It’s a lean forward show, not a sit back show.”

The Affair explores the relationship that develops between Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and Alison and how it affects their respective marriages – Noah’s to Helen Solloway (Maura Tierney) and Alison’s to Cole. The series begins by showing things from Noah’s point of view, but then shifts to show those same moments from Alison’s point of view, and the results are surprising.

There are two sides to every story, but when it comes to matters of the heart (driven by illogical and irrational emotions), the way two different people perceive things can contrast in unexpected ways. Set in Montauk, The Affair’s setting is just as important as the characters living in it. The series has a very distinct feel thanks to it’s specific set and costume design as well as a minimal, but affecting, score from Marcelo Zarvos.

Zarvos has the task of helping create this very specific world without tipping his musical hat to any one perspective. Where shows like Mistresses are soapy, The Affair is shrouded in mystery making the small moments – from riding a bike to taking a shower – all the more important.

Noah is a man who is uncertain and therefore he is restrained in his behavior. As Zarvos explains, “I wanted Noah to feel like he was on a strange land. This house and the wealth that he marries into still feels foreign to him and the wind chimes somehow express that.” This sets Noah up as someone looking for a life raft – something he seems to find in Alison.

For a show where differing perspectives of the same events are set up to contrast each other, the subtleties that make up any scene become ever more important. Zarvos makes sure his music plays into and around these different elements, noting, “The fact that the scene takes place at night also adds to the other-worldly aspect of his journey and, again, the chimes evoke a spiritual tone.”

Unlike Noah, Alison feels more adrift. The music that accompanies her is more thoughtful than mysterious – as though the music is trying to figure her out as much as she is. As Zarvos puts it, “Alison’s deep feelings give, even demand, a bigger space to be taken by the music.”

In the light of day, we see just how beautiful a place Montauk is – a stark contrast to the mystery it gives off when the sun goes down. Zarvos notes, “There is something more epic and grand about the imagery here that allows the music to be more grand.” Unlike the more mysterious tone of the music in Noah’s scene, Alison’s has a lighter tone, but one that resonates much more thanks to what is revealed in her voice-over.

Alison says, “I liked this one spot by the lighthouse because the waves out there seemed even angrier that I was.” Alison looks carefree on the beach, but this statement makes it clear there is much more going on beneath the face Alison presents to the world.

The look and feel of Noah and Alison’s scenes are important, but their perspectives are further helped by their voice-overs. As Zarvos explains, “In TV, dialogue is king. I have always loved writing under dialogue and specially voice-over. For me, the actor’s voice is like a song that I somehow provide accompaniment to. In The Affair, what is being said is usually quite complex and emotional, which also determines the temperament of the music itself.”

But as Noah and Alison start to come together and their connection starts to take shape, the music begins to weave together as well. “We kept their music mostly separate for the beginning of the season, but gradually, and in a very organic way, their themes began to cross pollinate and appear in each other’s story,” states Zarvos.

While Noah and Alison are clearly finding something in each other they are not finding in their respective marriages, it is Alison that is dealing with something much deeper. In her true moments alone, much more dissonant orchestration seeps in to show how much she is truly hurting. In these moments, it is what is not said that is the most powerful and Zarvos makes sure to highlight these performances without exploiting them.

“There is something about this scene that is so sad, but needs to also be quiet. We are finding out the unimaginable horror she endured, but experiencing it in a most intimate way. It’s like she is in a womb, sitting there in the shower,” Zarvos reveals.

It is this intimacy that seems to be the key at the heart of The Affair. The unique structure of the narrative allows viewers to truly go inside both Noah and Alison’s heads and see how each is responding to and viewing what is going on around them. Getting such an inside look at each character is what makes the connection between the characters and the audience all the more important.

The Affair is not just about the relationships depicted on screen, it is also about the relationship that develops between those on screen and those watching. As Zarvos puts it, “The Affair is not an overly thick sounding show so we tend not to favor too many things, sound wise, at once. Again, the key word is intimate. Like you are hearing someone’s most private thoughts.”

We would all love the ability to hear someone’s private thoughts and feelings, but The Affair then poses the real question of the series – what do you do once you know those private thoughts and feelings?

Season two of The Affair just premiered last night and will expand the story to include Cole and Helen’s perspectives. The Affair may not offer up any obvious answers, but paying attention to the music seems to be the key to understanding the true intimacy revealed by each of these complex characters.

Get caught up on The Affair through Netflix and listen to the soundtrack from the first season just released through Varese Sarabande records. The Affair Season 2 is currently airing Sunday nights on Showtime.